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A Writer Reviews: Total Recall

No no, not the new one. Look, I didn’t dislike the new one, but it’s the first shot of a troubling new trend in the film industry: remaking Paul Verhoeven movies that are still perfectly good on their own. We had a new Total Recall in 2012, a new Robocop a month ago, and there is fresh rumblings of a new attempt at Starship Troopers that hews a little more closely to the book.

I’m a huge fan of all three of these Verhoeven movies. They make for a fantastic triple feature if you want to just sit down and enjoy some fantastic satire connected through their jaded view of televised entertainment. But this isn’t about fawning over some of my favorite movies, it’s about taking one of them to task.

So what’s the big question at the center of Total Recall? The one question that people debate when they’re actually debating something so silly as 90s Schwarzenegger movies?

Does the movie happen or not?

Answer one: Yes. The movie is chronicling the actual events as Douglas Quaid learns that he is a secret agent who had his memory wiped and is living out a humdrum life on earth. Answer two: No. The movie is entirely the memory that Rekall has implanted into Quaid.

It’s a fun question. It’s at the heart of any unreliable narrator, just what parts can you believe or not? Unfortunately, and I hate to find such a glaring flaw in a Verhoeven movie, there’s only one possible correct answer. Douglas Quaid is, unambiguously, as the movie presents him. I will accept no other answer, because the movie makes it very clear in one important way.

Parts of the movie happen without Quaid on-screen.

If the movie was meant to be an implanted memory, these scenes wouldn’t exist. They couldn’t There is no way for Quaid to know what happens in these scenes, and thus no way for these scenes to otherwise exist. Sorry, the whole thing falls apart on that one moment, and any exploration about the nature of memory or reality is destroyed, leaving only a ridiculously fun story.

In the world of writing, this is what we call “head hopping.” That moment that a narrative jumps from one person’s point of view to another. On its own, head hopping is not a problem. Some stories (I’m looking at you, Frank Herbert) do it constantly. Some stories will switch between points of view at scene or chapter breaks. Some will stay firmly in a single point of view. Some will back off it all. The problem comes when head hopping happens accidentally. When that happens, it can feel like a cheat, pull the reader out of the story, or even destroy some of the potential drama.

So pick your point of view. If it’s not working, change it up. Just make sure it’s internally consistent.

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A Writer Reviews: Robot & Frank

Robot_and_frank_posterSet an unspecified number of years in the future, Robot & Frank combines two elements that I wouldn’t expect in the same movie. Frank Langella and a robot. Wait, no, I meant science fiction used as a lens for looking at dementia. It focuses on an elderly cat burglar who is slowly losing his grip with reality and reduced to pocketing soap cats at the local store, and the robot his son buys him to keep him company and exercise both his mind and his body. It’s a sweet movie, focused much more on the nature of aging than on being science fiction. The script, through Frank Langella, captures dementia with a heart breaking realism. Solid 7/10, and I’d recommend it, but avoid seeing the trailer if you can as it’s about 95% of the plot.

It feels odd to come out of a movie like Robot & Frank and say it reminds me of a line from Plan 9 from Outer Space. But…well, there you have it. Specifically Criswell’s awkwardly written monologue at the beginning: “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.” The movie comes down to an elderly man coming to grips with spending the rest of his life in the future. The library he walks to daily is being digitized. His new companion is a robot. The world is changing around him, as it will change around all of us as we get older. This is, perhaps, getting a little philosophical about the nature of time and technology, but this movie reminds us that there are generations growing old today with technology they couldn’t imagine and children, and so shall we probably all. Looking at near futurism through the perspective of an elderly protagonist is a fascinating twist.

And there’s the two word phrase I wanted to focus on with this review. Not “fascinating twist,” “near futurism.” This is science fiction set next year. Not specifically 2014, but at a time where technology has made a few steps but not yet any great leaps. On current television the best expression of near futurism is Person of Interest. It’s set “today” with just a little bit of magic tech thrown in, but magic tech that feels fully plausible. In days gone by the best expression was the Mystery Science Theater theme song placing the show “next Sunday, AD.” That’s as good a definition of near futurism as any.

So in the next Sunday, AD of Robot & Frank the primary bit of new tech are robot assistants. Mr. Darcy at the closing library. Frank’s robot “Robot.” They’ve clearly moved just beyond being toys, but haven’t reached a full saturation. There are moral questions surrounding these robots, what they represent, whether it’s fair to enslave them. These all happen on the outskirts of the story, and primarily through Liv Tyler’s character, but they deepen the world by hinting at broad debates that don’t apply to the central plot. It’s good to know the questions are being asked, but it’s not necessary to hash them all out on-screen.

There are other little expressions of advanced technology. James Marsden’s skinny one seat wide car (based on a concept vehicle dating back to 2009). Video phones channeled through the television (already offered in some areas). See-through cell phones. All just little tweaks in the world we live in, none out of place as potential advances of the next five years. The biggest leap is in the robotics. Even then, the closing credits of the movie shows the current state of the art in domestic robots. These shots are footnotes to everything Robot can do in the movie, consolidated into a single machine.

So let’s briefly compare the subtle future of Robot & Frank with another movie that may happen the same year. Robot & Frank makes no actual claims, but let’s say this technology could exist within six years. That’s probably optimistic on the robotics, but I’m choosing it as a handy date because 2019 places it in the same year as Blade Runner. With the two movies we have potential views of the same year, but imagined nearly 30 years apart from each other. One is set in the near future and one in a much more hypothetical and, at the time, distant future. If you want a difference between near futurism and more distance futurism, there it is. In one 2019 there are cell phones and helper robots. In another there are wars happening in deep space and earth is partially inhabited by almost indistinguishable robots.

One of the real strengths of Robot & Frank is this handling of the near future. It’s hiding around the corners of the movie in very subtle ways. Slight changes to fashion. Slight changes to technology. And, most important, slight abstractions from current trends. This is the best tool for handling the near future, and why a prospective author of near future needs to pay attention to where the state of the art is, where technology is going, and where controversies lie. These are where story details thrive. It’s not about being “right” about the future, it’s about using the abstraction to make a commentary. Are we ever going to have assistants quite like Robot? Perhaps not. Is it possible we’ll see a new round of robot labor issues? It is. Could the digitization of books lead to the closing of libraries? It already has, just not quite in the way depicted in the movie.

The near future is tough. Some writers may feel a pressure to be prescient, may feel that they’ll be held to their predictions. Some may be worried that the story could quickly be dated. I can’t say how well Robot & Frank will hold up as we slip into, then past the future predicted. The point may not even be for it to hold up, but for it to be a product of a moment of time. And, in this moment of time, it’s a very effective little story.

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A Writer Reviews: Django Unchained

It’s hard to talk about Django Unchained the way I want to talk about Django Unchained without bringing up rather big moments of the plot. So I’m going to hide it all behind a more tag. If you directly linked to this article and haven’t seen the movie, this is your cue to exit until you do.

Read the rest of this entry »

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A Writer Reviews: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beats-of-the-southern-wild-movie-posterWith the Oscar nominations announced this morning, I wanted to take some time to talk about movies that I’ve meant to talk about, but haven’t. Two in particular that took home nine nominations between them, including two of the nine Best Picture slots. Today, as you can tell from the subject line and the poster on the right, it’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Tomorrow it’ll be Quentin Tarantino’s revenge fantasy Django Unchained.

Typically these reviews are about pulling out some aspect of the movie or television show and turning it into a lesson for those of us who create visual, rather than produced, fiction. This is a little different. Today, I’d just like to talk about a movie that left me awed when I left the theater, and talk in terms of pure admiration for film craft and production.

There are two massive challenges when crafting a child character for film. First comes the challenge that all writers must face, creating a young voice that is believable, approachable, without turning the audience away with treacle. It’s about capturing innocence or earnestness. It is, perhaps, the most difficult character one can approach. Which is odd, we were all children once, we all have those experiences, but our memories are so clouded by time that it takes a true craftsman to get everything down on page.

Those of us who write for the page wrap it up there. For better or worse, we’ve tried our damnedest, and it’s up to the reader. When producing a television show, or especially a movie, the larger challenge now begins. Now it’s time to find the right kid, that rare child actor who can step up to the duties of carrying a movie, especially one who must carry a movie so thoroughly as Quvenzhané Wallis carried Beasts of the Southern Wild, acting as both lead actress and narrator. Really, this is a two-part challenge in itself. You need the actress who can carry a role beyond her years, and the director who can get that performance out of her.

I’m thrilled all three aspects of Hushpuppy’s character landed nominations: the screenplay, the actress, and the director. Add in a nomination for Best Picture, and today is really the day for Beasts of the Southern Wild. And let it have its day, I unfortunately foresee the movie going 0-for-4 on the night of the Oscars itself. So let’s ride the high for this movie, and we can talk about Lincoln and Les Mis another day.

In the broadest strokes, the movie is the story of Hushpuppy, a young girl who lives with her father in a place only every called the Bathtub. Where the Bathtub is doesn’t actually matter, this is a community cut off from the world, figuratively by their customs and spirit, and literally by their existence on the wrong side of a series of levees built to protect the mainland. Through Hushpuppy we experience a storm that is almost, but not quite, Katrina, her father’s illness, a quest to find her mother, and a community trying to hold together when threatened by a nameless government entity that is almost, but not quite, FEMA.

The entire movie plays out through her perspective. We get enough hints to piece together the larger narrative, but not all of it. The movie was billed as fantasy, and that’s what I went in expecting, but the real fantasy element is spending two hours living in the mind of a six-year-old girl. Magical realism comes from her imagination and understandings of the world. Things feel bigger and perspectives shift. It’s a movie that, in each of its moments, will make you cheer for this lifestyle because it’s all Hushpuppy knows. To make you want to get in there and fight everything intended to make her life “better” because that’s not what she wants, and it isn’t what anyone else in the Bathtub wants.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the few movies I’ve seen that I would describe as beautiful. There is not a single element of the movie that pulls at you and says “this is a work of fiction.” This goes right down to the cast, composed entirely of unknown, local, and first-time actors. There’s no known faces to remind you these are people in roles, creating an odd purity of the experience.

Oh man, I’m starting to use phrases like “purity of the experience” when talking about a movie. I better dial this back now. But that’s just what this movie did to me. It’s not one I would typically have seen in theaters, it’s not a movie that I would say is fun to watch by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s one I’m very glad that I did watch. While I have low hopes for it capitalizing on any of these nominations next month, I really hope the movie proves me wrong.

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A Writer Reviews: Adventure Time

Adventure Time continually surprises me. If you’re not aware of the show, it’s hiding over on Cartoon Network, typically airing new episodes on Monday nights at 7:30 and rerunning older episodes throughout the week. Each episode is a fifteen minute chunk of pure surrealism. One recent episode featured the lead character, Finn the human, traveling to Mars to save his best friend, a magical stretching dog named Jake. To do so, he must plead his case to the king of Mars, Abraham Lincoln, who surrenders his immortality to the coyote-skull faced avatar of Death to save Jake.

Yeah. It’s often a seriously trippy show. It’s probably one of the hardest shows to determine the exact age range for, and that I’m uncertain when I think my daughter will be the right age for. Sure, several of the characters are sentient pieces of candy…but then there’s the Lich, and the denizens of the Nightosphere straight out of Hieronymus Bosch.

So why am I talking Adventure Time?

Clearly there’s going to be a difference between a seven minute short and a series of 15 minute episodes. Characters need to be fleshed out. The penguins, or at least the lead penguin, now has occasional desires to take over the world and break glass bottles. Lady Rainicorn now speaks Korean, in which she delivers the occasional double entendre, and is pregnant with Jake’s puppies. Finn has to deal with puberty and crushes. Princess Bubblegum is turning more and more into a mad scientist, and perhaps even tyrant. But I’m not really interested in talking about any of them. I want to talk about the Ice King.

Somewhere along the line the cartoonishly evil antagonist of that seven minute short has become one of the most complex long-running antagonists I’ve seen of any show. For any age group. He has a real name now (Simon) and a back story that becomes increasingly heart breaking with every new turn, all while never not being evil in some way.

He had an opportunity to have a son (“What is Life?”), albeit a son who is a sentient pie-flinging microwave. Through the episode he talks about training this son to help him abduct princesses, but in the end his wistful daydream is about just sitting and watching the sunset. And hearing the toaster say he loves him.

He spends an episode (“The Eyes”) spying on Finn and Jake, trying to learn how to be happy.

He creates a wife for himself (“Princess Monster Wife”). He does it through stealing individual body parts from the princesses throughout the land of Ooo and assembling them into a horrible monster, incapable of even eating…but that he shows legitimate affection for.

These are wonderful humanizing moments on their own, and I appreciate any show that can generate such sympathy for an antagonist. He never stops being the antagonist, he and Finn are working almost constantly at cross purposes and the Ice King is a serial kidnapper, but there’s also an odd caring there. In one episode (“Hitman”) it’s made very clear that the Ice King could kill Finn and Jake whenever he chooses to do so. But he doesn’t.

And then there’s Simon.

He was human at one point. He was in love. Then he bought a crown, wore it as a joke, and it simultaneously extended his life and destroyed his mind. Turned him crazy. It’s sucked so much of his brain, made him so diabolically single-focused, that he cannot remember forming a bond with the only other apparent survivor of the thermonuclear “Mushroom War.” There is so much tragedy built into this character, made more so by not being his fault. An accident created the Ice King.

Whenever they deepen his character another notch, I get tempted to write this blog post, to track the path by which a kids’ show born of a silly seven minute animated short has crafted one of the most nuanced characters I’ve come across in any television show. I’ve wanted to talk about the Ice King as the antagonist, and what lessons he can teach us, as writers, about how to create antagonists who are rich, interesting, and may even tug at the reader’s heart strings. I’ve always stopped myself because then I would be That Guy talking about a kids show on his blog. However, the last step they took, showing us those few moments of kindness that he has now forgotten in a form of magically induced Alzheimer’s… Now the problem isn’t the worry of being That Guy, instead it’s that the Ice King is no longer about how to create a compelling antagonist. He’s about how to create a compelling character period. And how even characters with a single apparent motivation, in this case kidnapping a princess and forcing her to marry him, can have a stunning depth of character.

In the end, it’ll create characters that people love. Perhaps in spite of themselves. Force them to sit back, as I’ve done on occasion, and say “damn, Adventure Time, why do you keep making me feel sympathetic for the Ice King?” Why? Because it’s good story telling.

Now, a television show will always have that advantage of time. Dozens, even hundreds of hours to develop characters. We’re writers, we don’t have that time? I say that’s a piss poor excuse. No, you’re not going to be able to give every single character in your short story, or even your novel, as rich and nuanced of a back story as the Ice King. But everyone still has that story. Everyone still is nuanced. It’s likely no one in your story is purely good, or purely evil, certainly not to themselves. And if you know what that nugget is deep inside the character, even if the character himself can’t remember, it can still shine through in their thoughts, words, and actions.

Mathematical!

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Four Humors in The Avengers

I’m working on my next Ace Double review, so it’s going to be a longer post that requires extra time.  So a quick post today.  Finally saw the Avengers, and what I suspected before I went to the movie was confirmed by the movie itself.  There are four superheros, there are four humors, and they map quite well.

  1. Choleric.  The natural leader.  Captain America.  His own movie was subtitled “The First Avenger,” and he’s the one giving orders when the group is actually working together.
  2. Phlegmatic.  The emotional follower.  Bruce Banner.  It’s hard to assign a personality to the Hulk, but Banner is chock-a-block with personality quirks.  Which is why everyone is raving over the portrayal of the character.
  3. Melancholic.  The introvert.  Thor.  The natural outsider, being the only of the four not from Earth, he’s accustomed to being self reliant and independent.
  4. Sanguine.  The fun one.  Iron Man.  He’s the easiest of the four to pin down, he’s the charismatic one.  The billionaire, playboy, genius, philanthropist.  Those are all sides of the sanguine personality.

It’s interesting, I’ve seen comparisons of the movie to Lord of the Rings, and there is the same fellowship of nine characters.  The listed four, plus the SHIELD characters: Hawkeye, Black Widow, Nick Fury, Phil Coulson, and Maria Hill.  In this analogy, I supposed the superheroes would be the four hobbits, most of the SHIELD characters would be the other members of the Fellowship, and Nick Fury would be Gandalf, the overarching Choleric who brings them all together.  I’m sure someone much more versed in film deconstruction could really pull this apart in-depth, but I’ve got my other post to focus on.

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A Writer Reviews: Lord of the Rings (pt3)

The Return of the Sanguine

For those who missed the first two parts (part 1, part 2) I have divided the 10 main characters in the Lord of the Rings into the four temperaments, shown how characters who share a supposed temperament may share almost nothing else in terms of what actually makes them a character, and now I’m going to look at just the three Sanguine characters, and the differences in their character arcs through the movies.  Today it’s Gollum, Gimli, and Pippin.

The Sanguine, to recap, is the hot-blooded character, a character of passions and desires, and who let these control his or her personality.  When I broke down the Scooby gang back in part 1, the Sanguines were Shaggy and Scooby.  The Sanguine character will frequently, but not always, be the comic relief within a story.  Certainly one of the Sanguine characters in Lord of the Rings, Gollum, is anything but a comic relief character, serving instead as the primary antagonist to Frodo’s quest to throw the Ring into Mount Doom.  The Sanguine can be an effective opposing force for the story, especially if his or her blindered devotion is working directly against the hero of the tale.  Many comic super villains end up firmly in the Sanguine category.  Joker, I’m looking at you.  In the end it depends on the depths a character is willing to plumb to win his or her desire.

In terms of straight comic relief let us, with some regret, turn to Gimli.  I suppose it’s easy to make the dwarf the butt of jokes, I just hope there’s less of a dwarf-tossing running gag in the Hobbit films, especially given just how many dwarves there will be.  Most of the dissatisfaction I, and others, had with the movies revolved around Gimli turning into a series of running gags.  Dwarf tossing, corpse counting, throwing out complaints about whatever situations they were in.  Then he just fades away at the end of the movie, no mention of his fate, he’s the only character who is really left open-ended by the whole thing.  Which is a shame.  It’s an easy trap to fall into with the Sanguine, however, it’s one of the easier characters to play just for their archetype, then when no longer needed, to be discard.  The Sanguine is occasionally the character killed off to prove that Shit Just Got Real.  Or allowed to fade away when it’s time for the grownups to take charge.  The Sanguine comic relief will never solve a problem, except by accident.  It’s really a shame this is who Gimli was turned into.

On the flip side we’ve got the Sanguine’s ability to evolve, which can turn them into a very powerful character within a narrative.  And here is where we get to Peregrin Took.  Who doesn’t love the line “fool of a Took”?  It’s fun to say, and it’s fantastic when delivered with the gravitas of Sir Ian McKellen.  He can be counted on to be the classic Sanguine through the first movie, wanting to stop to eat, delighted that beer comes in pints in Bree, not thinking and giving Frodo’s identity away, knocking the skeleton into the well in Moria to alert the Fellowship’s presence to the orcs in Moria.  The first moment that we see something more from Pippin is when he asks Treebeard to take them to the west of Fangorn Forest, forcing the Ents into war against Isengard, but we still see his impetuous nature when he goes diving for the palantir, ultimately looks into it, and finally drafts himself into service in Gondor.  It’s this series of three events, coupled with being pulled away from Merry, that forces Pippin’s evolution as a character and pushes him away from the Sanguine.

What he becomes is hard to say.  There are elements of both the Melancholy and Choleric to the new Pippin.  In the end we don’t get to see enough of Pippin within the movies.  Within the books, he unquestionably becomes the Choleric, taking his place as the Thain of the Shire.  It makes his evolution a much stronger statement, as he needed to do some growing up to assume his ancestral title.  In the movies, it still makes him easily my favorite character.  The more I watch the movies, the more I see that the trip into Mordor is Sam’s story, not Frodo’s, and the rest of the Fellowship is Pippin’s story, not Aragorn’s.  They are the interesting characters for how changed Pippin is when he comes home, and how unchanged Sam is.  In fact, Sam is a study in how a character not changing can still be very satisfying, but I’ve really talked about these movies for long enough already.

So let’s sum up, and let’s do so quicker than the movies themselves.  The four temperaments can be a great way of approaching your characters and making sure they have unique roles within a group dynamic.  Characters of the same temperament do not have to respond to situations in the same way.  The Sanguine can be an extremely versatile character, but has pitfalls when used solely as comic relief.  With that, I can now put these movies on a boat sailing away with the elves, and look forward to looking back with The Hobbit later this year.

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A Writer Reviews: Lord of the Rings (pt2)

The Two Cholerics

Last time on A Writer Reviews I talked about the four temperaments, then pigeonholed the 10 main characters of Lord of the Rings (the Fellowship plus Gollum) into these categories:

  • Choleric (leaders): Aragorn, Merry
  • Phlegmatic (followers): Samwise, Legolas
  • Melancholic (loaners): Gandalf, Boromir, Frodo
  • Sanguine (wild-cards): Pippin, Gollum, Gimli

This time we’re going to look at the distinctions made between characters who share a broad temperament but are still quite different, and for this we’re going to look at the two bile-based temperaments, the yellow bile Cholerics and the black bile Melancholics.

We’re getting down to archetypes here.  When we’ve got just four broad categories to fit characters into, a wide diversity is going to end up in each of these pigeon holes.  Archetypes are fine, they’re wonderful, they’re absolutely fantastic.  They exist for a reason, and readers respond to them.  However, a character needs to be more than just the sum of their archetypes, and as writers we need to keep in mind how characters of both similar and dissimilar archetypes will react to each other.  This is the essential ingredient in creating both friendships and conflicts within a story.

Let’s start with our two Cholerics.  I made the obvious pick of Aragorn and the somewhat less obvious pick of Merry when picking who the Choleric characters are within the story.  Merry isn’t given many opportunities to actually lead, but remember I’ve only called the Choleric a “leader” as a short hand.  It’s more about drive, passion, and the ability to make those quick decisions on the fly.  Yesterday I cited the example of Merry making the call for the hobbits to escape the Nazgul via the ferry, but he also takes a clear leadership role when we’re down to just he and Pippin in Orcish captivity and in Fangorn forest.  His is an interesting leadership, as he’s the one willing to take the reins when no one else is, but he’s fully willing to defer to another when presented with an option.  Put Aragorn into the formula, and he allows Pippin’s Sanguine nature to rub off on him.  This is important.  Anytime that a story has more than one natural leader in it, there will either need to be that moment of deferral or that moment of confrontation.  There is a very short confrontation when the hobbits first meet Aragorn, and the real moment of deferral happens the morning after Bree when Merry pulls Pipping along when it’s clear Aragorn is not going to stop for every hobbit meal.

In a sense, we’ve got a natural leader, and a reluctant leader.  Both are Choleric, but one never strays while the other is more than happy to experiment with being a Sanguine when the moment is opportune to do so.

Among our Melancholic types, we see a broader range of characters.  We have an energetic Melancholic, able to lead men while still fitting many of the paradigms, in Galdalf.  We have a Melancholic whose thoughtful introversion scales all the way to scheming in Boromir.  And we’ve got our miserable Melancholic who can hardly bear the burden placed on his life in Frodo.  We see two of the three overcome their base natures.  Boromir ultimately backs off when given the opportunity to snatch the ring.  Gandalf acts as the military leader at the battle of Minis Tirith.  Frodo never really does.  Even after his burden is lifted, he lives alone, and joins the elves, leaving Middle Earth.  Which is fine.  Having a character overcome their Melancholic nature can be a fantastic plot device for a story, but it isn’t a necessary one.

The problem comes with just how heavily to play the Melancholic.  This is where we get into my issues with the movie.  Two of our Melancholics are given bigger personalities.  Gandalf is the great wizard, older than the ages, plyer of magic and in many ways the architect of everything that happens in the story.  Boromir is scheming to get the ring away from Frodo.  Frodo is…depressed.  With the exception of the scene right after he’s released by Faramir he spends the entire time from the beginning of the second movie through the destruction of the Ring in a deep blue funk about how miserable he is with the path he’s been forced to take.  This.  Gets.  Tedious.  A character cannot be defined solely by his temperament, but needs some other depth or trait, especially a character nearly so introspective as a Melancholic.

So we have our temperaments, but we’ve got our layers on top of them.  We have two leaders, but one is a destined king of men while another is a hobbit who only takes the lead when no one else is going to.  We have our loaners, but one is willing to lead men, one is a schemer, and one is our overly introspective lead.

However, people change.  Characters are dynamic.  And a character who may start in one pigeonhole may end up in another.  Which is what I’ll look at tomorrow with The Return of the Sanguine.

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A Writer Reviews: Lord of the Rings (pt1)

Part One: The Fellowship of the Humors

I’d like to retread ground I’ve walked on before.  Nearly a year ago I talked briefly about using the four humors when putting together a quarter of character within a narrative structure, using a Cracked After Hours video as a basis.  At the time the concept was a new one to me, but I’ve been looking at it more and more in the months since, especially after discovering that my wife and I had accidentally created four point of view characters for our current novel that map perfectly to the four humors.

Let’s do a quick recap of the four humors, or four temperaments, for those who not aware of them.  It all started with out of date notions of psychology, explanations of human behavior in terms of the balance and imbalance of the four primary bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile.  This gave rise to four primary temperaments based on which of these essential humors was most in control of a given person.  Blood was sanguine, phlegm was phlegmatic, yellow bile was choleric, and black bile was melancholic.  While our understanding of bodily organs and our various internal fluids has evolved (at the time, blood was associated with the liver) and humorism no longer holds sway in psychology or medicine, the concept of the four temperaments has held on within fiction.  It’s the basis of an immediately recognizable quartet of individuals.

The sanguine individual tends to be an impulsive pleasure seeker who, in an extreme, might even be hedonistic.  We actually have a phrase in English that dates to this old four humors explanation of temperament, “hot blooded.”  The choleric individual tends to be ambitious and will take charge of a group and be its leader.  The melancholic individual tends to be a loaner, a perfectionist, and may even be a fatalist when taken to the extreme.  The phlegmatic individual is accepting, loving, and often a willing follower.

To oversimplify it within team dynamics, we have the choleric leader, the phlegmatic side kick, the melancholic outcast, and the sanguine comic relief.  This is a vast over simplification.  For one, the phlegmatic may not always be the choleric’s side kick, and the sanguine can be tragic as often as comic.  However, these simplified designations are helpful when considering just what role the four have within a group, and how it creates the classic group dynamic we’re accustomed to.  It’s one we even see starting in childhood.  Within the Scooby Doo stories, Fred is choleric, Daphne is phlegmatic, Velma is melancholic, and both Shaggy and Scooby (who are basically one character anyway) are sanguine.

This is a fantastic construct because it creates characters with natural in-built conflicts, and characters that viewers will be able to map themselves on to based on their own tendencies.

Let’s look at the Lord of the Rings.  This is a rather more complex series of groups that are constantly breaking apart and reforming.  At points there are just two characters together, at points there are as many as nine between the formation of the Fellowship and Gandalf falling in Moria.  But I’m going to break it down into two groups, based largely on the period between the fall of Gandalf and the breaking of the Fellowship.  They’re easy groups.  We’ve got the hobbits, and we’ve got the non-hobbits.  Among the non-hobbits we’ve got Aragorn as the clear choleric leader, Boromir as the dour melancholic who wants the ring for his own purposes, phlegmatic Legolas who makes only one active decision in the entire trilogy and serves otherwise as body-guard and ass kicker, and sanguine Gimli, turned into classic comic relief for the purposes of the movies.

The hobbits are a little more difficult.  It’s easy to consider Frodo the leader as he’s our protagonist through the movie (well, Sam actually is, but that’s another discussion), but he’s almost a textbook example of the melancholic, both within the temperamental definition, and the more modern idea of melancholy.  He’s the one who breaks the Fellowship by setting out on his own, and spends most of three movies bemoaning how unfair the world is.  Sam is the easy one to peg, he’s the phlegmatic follower.  At no point does he ever do anything but.  This even leads to my biggest disappointment in the movies, the moment when Sam briefly hesitates in giving the Ring back to Frodo.  In the book there’s no hesitation, as his devotion to Frodo is stronger than anything, even the allure of the Ring.  That leaves Merry and Pippin, who are so often “Merry and Pippin” that it’s easy to overlook them as their own characters, but that’s unfair.  Merry, even though he’s on the adventure to help Frodo, is actually the choleric, which doesn’t have to be synonymous with leader.  But he does take the lead at several key point, especially when the hobbits are fleeing toward the ferry.  Pippin is the sanguine, though he actually goes through more evolution than any other character.  At the beginning, he’s the one complaining that Aragorn isn’t aware of second breakfast, brunch, tea, lunch, or any of the other hobbit meals.  This rash nature ultimately gets him in trouble when he just has to look into the Palantir.  This also becomes the defining moment for his character arc, but that’s another topic.

There’s two wild cards: Gollum and Gandalf.  Gollum is easy, he’s a hot-blooded, single-minded sanguine, through and through (ignoring the split personality).  Gandalf is harder.  It’s easy to say, as with Frodo, that he must be choleric because he’s a leader.  But he’s also the one character who is the most at ease on his own within the story.  Thus, I would actually peg him as a melancholic, as he’s a loan wolf often concerned with the larger fate of the world.

That means within the story we get the following groups:

  • Full set of each (the Hobbits leaving the Shire)
  • 3 Melancholics, 2 Sanguines, 2 Cholerics, and 2 Phlegmatics (the Fellowship)
  • Melancholic, Sanguine, Phlegmatic (Frodo and Sam heading to Mordor, and led by Gollum)
  • Choleric and Sanguine (Merry and Pippin, luring the Ents to war)
  • Sanguine, Phlegmatic, Choleric (The remains of the Fellowship, trying to save Merry and Pippin, and getting into every major battle)
  • Full quartet (Gandalf rejoining the above group in Fangorn)
  • Melancholic and Sanguine (Gandalf and Pippin setting off with the Palantir)

These personalities lead entirely to the dynamic within each group.  It makes the trudge of Sam and Frodo rather tedious, as there’s no leadership qualities in any of the characters, so the Melancholic is bemoaning his fate, the Phlegmatic is commiserating, and the Sanguine is plotting his take down of the other two.  It makes the adventures of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli throwaway fun, as there’s nothing to really ground the group, which is why their adventures of body counting can transcend to the frankly silly.  Merry and Pippin?  Ah, that’s a little more complicated, and something I’ll talk about on Wednesday.

Now that we’ve pigeonholed everyone into four categories, and I’m already well over 1000 words, I’m going to turn this post into its own three part epic.  Tomorrow I’m going to look at how different characters within each of the four temperaments can be from one another.

Part Two: The Two Cholerics (Coming tomorrow)

Part Three: The Return of the Sanguine (Coming Wednesday)

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A Writer Reviews: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

Before I start talking about this in terms of writing and character development, I’m going to say if you’ve only seen Dr. Horrible online, through Netflix, on iTunes, anything like that…track down the DVD.  Commentary, The Musical is a full length…well, musical commentary track that is value added and then some.

I’ve been meaning to talk about Dr. Horrible in one of these Writer Reviews bits.  I always figured when I did I would explore the nature of the protagonist and antagonist versus the hero and villain of the story.  That’s legitimately interesting with Dr. Horrible, which does the villain-as-protagonist twist that was later the heart of Despicable Me and Megamind, but without taking the villain-becomes-hero redemption route.  Instead, Dr. Horrible is a fantastic example of a protagonist with two conflicting, and actively contradictory, goals.

I was playing around with these while putting together an exercise on dissecting plots for my writers group.  Dr. Horrible has two main plot lines, which for the exercise I deemed as the “Dr. Horrible” plot and the “Billy” plot, with each of the main character’s personas taking the role of protagonist, and Captain Hammer being the antagonist.  Let’s just do a quick breakdown for those who might not remember the entirety of each plot, using the seven step plot break-down I talked about two weeks ago.  These are my own suggestions for the points, so you may disagree with them and the will be spoiler filled.

Dr. Horrible wants to join the Evil League of Evil.  That’s his hook, and that’s where the story starts, reading viewer email and talking about his transmatter and freeze rays.  Plot Turn 1 comes when he gets a letter from Bad Horse saying he is under evaluation for membership.  Pinch 1 occurs during the Wonderflonium heist, which is interrupted by introduced nemesis Captain Hammer.  Even though he succeeds, the intervention complicates his path to ELE membership.  The midpoint is the second Bad Horse letter, announcing that he’s been unsuccessful in his membership and now must kill someone to get in, it’s the first point of transition from merely felonious to willingly murderous.  Pinch 2, rather than being an all-is-lost moment, is actually a high point during the song “Brand New Day” when Dr. Horrible realizes that Captain Hammer will be his victim.  Plot Turn 2 comes with the creation of the death ray and the accidental death of Penny, which leads to the conclusion as Dr. Horrible rides roughshod over the city and joins the League.

Billy is infatuated with Penny, the cute redhead at the laundromat, and his hook is the opening song “My Freeze Ray.”  Plot Turn 1 happens as he is preparing for the Wonderflonium heist (seriously, Wonderflonium is a fun word to write) when Penny recognizes him and talks to him about creating a shelter.  Pinch 1 has Penny swooning for Captain Hammer after he apparently saves her life.  In the midpoint Penny and Billy are now “laundry buddies” sharing frozen yogurt and talking about their lives, they even nearly kiss at one moment.  Pinch 2, all is lost, happens when Captain Hammer comes to the laundromat, recognizes Billy as Dr. Horrible, and announces that he’s going to keep dating Penny out of spite.  “These are not the hammer.”  Plot Turn 2, now this is the interesting part.  The moment where Billy has everything he needs to win over Penny’s heart, he doesn’t know it.  It’s the point where she walks off stage disgusted that Captain Hammer is discussing their love life and isn’t nearly as interested in the homeless as he seems.  Sadly, because Joss Whedon will rip your heart out every damn time, he doesn’t know this so the conclusion has her dead in his arms, her last words being “Captain Hammer will save us.”

The first important turning point of the story happens at Plot Turn 1 for the Billy storyline, which is appropriate.  Plot Turn 1 is that moment where we’re done introducing the characters and we need to give them a story to take part in.  Our villainous hero in Dr. Horrible has a moment after his first actual conversation with Penny where he considers whether he should go after her, or whether to continue with the heist and experience his other Plot Turn.  The choices are directly in conflict with each other, and he needs a moment to make a conscious choice between the two plots.  It’s that moment where he can choose whether to abandon evil and go after Penny, or where he can continue with his plan.  This comes to a head at the end of Act Two when Pinch 2 for each plot run headlong into each other.  When he has to confront Captain Hammer discussing what parts of his anatomy are, and are not, the hammer, he is again presented with a choice of how to go forward.  However, he doesn’t recognize it as a choice, and instead decides the murder of Captain Hammer will achieve both goals, certain Penny will love him when she gets a “shiny new Australia.”  The fact that he’s hiding behind a curtain when Plot Turn 2 happens for the Billy plot drives the point home.

Conflicting goals make characters interesting.  How they handle them is important.  In Dr. Horrible our main character has with two goals that I think a lot of young men in the target audience can understand: the desire to be a super villain and the desire to date Felicia Day.  Or is that just me?  Anyway, when it comes to conflicting goals like these, there are three possible outcomes to conflicting goals.  First is that the character, through trying to achieve both, achieves neither and learns a lesson in the process.  Second is that the character is forced, whether consciously or unconsciously, to give up one goal in favor of the other, and learns a lesson in the process.  The third is that the character gets to eat his cake and have it to, the conflicting goals through some device deconflict, and the character really learns nothing in the process.

Dr. Horrible is interesting because he has convinced himself that he is working towards the third instance.  Lots of characters, and people, presented with this sort of choice likely to do the same, to rationalize their decisions as being in the best interest of both goals.  It’s what makes the ultimately downfall of the Billy plot line so heart-rending, because he has convinced himself that his actions are building towards happy endings for both personas, though we as an audience are less naïve in thinking socially progressive Penny will agree that a world run by Dr. Horrible is the cure for societal ills.  He never recognized the moment that he chose one plot over to the others.  We can, we the audience know the tragedy that he is walking into.  In part because we’re trained that characters can’t have everything they ever wanted.  That everything won’t be fine.  Because that’s ultimately uninteresting.  There’s nothing of humanity in that answer.

Alright, that’s not entirely fair.  Characters do occasionally get to eat their cake and have it, too.  Not because they’re trying to.  It has to be that though choosing one goal they find another path to their lost goal.  Then they’ve grown and learned, and gotten a pretty nifty reward in the process.  It’s the character who is certain, as Dr. Horrible is, that his two goals are one in the same and can be achieved through the same grand act, who must learn through pain and suffering.

Characters need choices.  They need big choices.  They need conflicting options.  They need two doors, the lady and the tiger, and a requirement to choose one and never open the other.  They can have several shots at the same choice, but they need to either act consistently, as Dr. Horrible did, or have a good reason for changing.  And I won’t go so far as to say they have to be punished for their choices, but the choice cannot lack repercussions.  Some moment that drives home that they chose, and that their choice had implications.  It’s a moment to add depth to the character, and to give them a shot at some genuine emotion.  They have, after all, walked away from something that they wanted, something that motivated them for a good portion of the story, and the audience isn’t going to buy it if the character looks at what happen and they don’t feel…

…a thing.

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