Written by Tyrone Bruinsma
Ok, so for complete transparency my reference for this is fan responses to various properties, fan stories and reading the works of recent stories by current creators and colleagues. So while I acknowledge that this isn’t a universal issue-it is one that has bothered me and I’ve wanted to address and create a small blog/article about.
So a trend I’ve noticed in terms of storytelling (especially genre stories) is a focus on worldbuilding, discarding of the real “3 Act Hero’s Journey” and the desire for encyclopedic stories. The main examples are current stories I’ve read and fan responses, so I’m going to make a list of blunt and harsh points that have more than just the title to them.
1. YOUR CHARACTER ISN’T IMPORTANT
Ok, so what I mean by this is there is a tendency for many people to make their main character this incredibly prominent and desired character in the world. They’re often the chosen one, or a character called to action by great heroes or purposefully desired by the villain. They often have very few flaws (aside from curiosity or clumsiness-which are not flaws) and are either Bella from Twilight where they’re a blank slate for an audience to project themselves onto, or is an author insert. I feel the latter is very common as we’re in a trend of authors having to put themselves into stories as an autobiographical fantasy or retelling of their life. Unfortunately that often creates a problem where people want their character to be loved and while that can be (for the writer) a positive fantasy…in reality…it comes of like what Tommy Wiseau attempted with The Room.
You main character shouldn’t be the most important character in your story and they shouldn’t just be a camera for the audience to see the world, because it either makes you main “character” not a character. You either render them an authorial fantasy or blank slate to experience your invented world. The point of a character is for their growth and change, that’s what a story is. The story isn’t “I’m the most important character, I’m going on a journey to see worlds and beat a bad guy”, it’s “I’m going on this journey after maybe not deciding to, but I do and I’ll change for better or worse by the end”. The only genre that even remotely allows the lack of development is the noir genre as the Detective is a small character in a big world that people are more annoyed to have around. The way you develop your character is through “want vs need” (often tied to a theme) wherein someone wants something and must give it up to fulfil their need and change as a person. In the best versions of these:
-Star Wars: “Luke gives up his want to go to flight academy and goes on a journey where to save the Galaxy, he must chill out and embrace the force”.
-Aladdin: “Aladdin gives up his want to be someone he isn’t, and goes on a journey where he learns to be himself”
-The Dark Knight: “Bruce must give up his want to stop being Batman and pass the duties to someone else and realises he needs to be The Dark Knight”
It’s not really hard, you go through an arc and have a different person by the end…because that’s what people do. And making your character incredibly important and special not only detaches an audiences grasp (because a grounded character is easier to understand for more audiences) it also creates a somewhat problematic elitism with the whole “Chosen One” narrative. Your characters should drive the plot, because your villain does. In storytelling terms:
-“Point of Attack” is when the villain kicks the plot into gear in the opening scene (Star Wars, Aladdin, Speed, The Matrix, Avengers: Infinity War)
-“Inciting Incident” is when the hero decides to go on this journey after discovering it (Legend, Mulan, Seven, The Meg, No Country for Old Men) and often they’re forced into it.
The point being is that your character should often be forced into worse case scenarios that the villain has left (likely unintentionally) and the hero should be more an annoyance or disturbance to the villain. When people say the “It’s about the journey” it means we’re here to see a character grow over time…not just kill a bad guy and suddenly they’re a different person. It’s what makes the hero’s journey (although subverting it like in Avengers Infinity War helps)
And speaking of worst case scenarios…
2. YOU ARE A DEVIL, NOT A GOD
One of the best pieces of writing advice I was given in Film School was “Be your character’s demon” and this feeds into what I meant about these perfect characters many creators develop. Their main characters either experience no pain, problems or situations they can’t easily work their way out of. In reality…you should be abusing your character and putting them in the worst case scenario. For example:
-Die Hard: “I’m just an average cop in a building with terrorists, hostages and I don’t even have my shoes”.
-Speed: “I’m an FBI agent who now has to keep a bus speeding 55 miles per hour or it’ll explode”.
-The Revenant: “I’m a tracker whose being chased by native Americas, I’ve been almost killed by a bear and I was betrayed and left for dead by an evil colleague-so I’m out for revenge”.
No one wants to have the main character never be in trouble or never experience difficulty, even if they’re someone like The Rock or Robert Downey Jr. You want to love your characters at the beginning, but either admire or hate them by the end. Maybe you’re supposed to like them at the beginning because they’re cool, but kind of a jerk and you love them by the end because they’re a better person-like in Emperor’s New Groove. Characters who suffer and pull through are admirable: we admire John McClane in Die Hard because of what he goes through (not so much in part 4 or 5) or sympathise with Ash from the Evil Dead films as he suffers the torment of the Deadites. You pretty much have to injure, hurt, or scar your characters in the story…and not in the tragic backstory way.
3. TRAGIC BACKSTORIES SHOULD BE YOUR MAIN PLOT
Many stories I read have this problem where the main character’s current story is bland and their backstory is far more interesting. As Zero Punctuation’s Yahtzee Croshaw states “Is this the most interesting part of your character’s life? And if not, why aren’t you showing us that?” A tragic backstory is often where a character has been developed, but to a point where they can’t grow further…or they just reverse the backstory to go to a status quo we only know as a backstory. Characters obviously need backstory, but if you’re going to have a character’s backstory be saving the world while our current story is them dealing with a difficult day at work…it feels weak. Thirteen Ghosts had its incredibly in depth and rather nuanced backstories for its ghosts kept as dvd specials and not part of the rather boring main story and its all for the worse. If you make a cool thing happen, show it. You can give them a brief backstory, but don’t give them an amazing backstory to where you don’t even show that.
4. YOUR WORLDS AREN’T IMPORTANT
This is a problem I find in fantasy, sci-fi and alternative worlds, where more detail is put into the mythology, timeline rules and customs of a world-rather than the characters or story. It’s kind of like that episode of Family Guy wherein Brian Griffin takes focus medication and creates a giant world, treatment and even a language-only to have it put down by George RR Martin. Because let’s be clear here…no one REALLY cares about this giant elaborate world with 10’000 years of history-they’re here to see the story of growing characters. Your setting should be a playground for the characters and audience…and no audience wants to be educated what the playground was before or what company made the swing set-they’re here to have fun. Now if you do fall in love with the world you made and NEED to have it out there…then just have it as one of those encyclopedic books that company giant universes-don’t just shove it into the story. David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune has this problem where either 10’000 or 5000 years of history is explained in the first 10 minutes of the film…and not only could I not remember most of it-most of it doesn’t really matter. We shouldn’t need to start a film on the birth of the universe or your main characters…unless that actually has something to do with the plot. As my lecturer and fellow filmmaker Stephen Lance stated: “Films should be like a party where you arrive late”, because the preparing for a party and tidying a party are not the interesting parts. Start your story with a world already in swing and end with events that can follow. Your world should just be a really fascinating background for a good story, it’s like how the original Star Wars trilogy is great despite never really getting into HOW this world exists-and why the prequels made it boring by explaining it and getting into political elements. For some of the BEST ways worlds are shown and not told, I highly encourage looking at:
-Watchmen (Graphic Novel and Film)
-Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049
-Akira (Manga and Film)
-A Clockwork Orange (Film)
Backstory is a part of storytelling so it’s ok to have it hinted in the background or briefly told, but if you’re going to do so-at least make it interesting (Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Man of Steel, District 9). Backstory isn’t nececcary to everything: I didn’t need the Star Wars prequels to make the other films fun, I didn’t need the history of the Italian mafia to enjoy The Godfather, Goodfellas or The Untouchables and I didn’t need to read the prequel comics to understand John Doe from Seven.
5. STAR WARS THE LAST JEDI ISN’T BAD
Now a lot of my understanding on fans (often creators in their own right) wanting to inform stories was the negative response wave to The Last Jedi. Particularly how complaints were made in regards to Rey’s parents not being told (many people assuming she was Luke’s daughter), the truth of Snoke having no result (theorised to be someone we already knew), more Captain Phasma and how Finn and Rose’s escapade into a new world to show a new part of the universe was dumb. Now I may sound rather elitist and condescending saying this but, I’m glad The Last Jedi did these because aside from me believing fan entitlement shouldn’t always be met-the desired inclusions would’ve likely been stupid.
I really feel like we’re so accustomed to stories where every character has to be related or already existed in a story we know about. If Luke was Rey’s father…it would have made no sense and just make Rey more uninteresting than she already is. If Snoke was revealed to be some big bad we already knew about…that really wouldn’t have changed anything. Characters are able to just be and exist, but many writers and fans desire for completely inclusive stories where everyone and everything has to be tied to the same core elements. I feel this is strange as it makes galaxy wide stories revolve around a core group of people (again feeding this elitism angle), but I can understand how the human desires a lack of loose ends…but how many loose ends are the most memorable parts of films? (Inception anyone).
It kind of reminds of one of the recent reveals with the animated series Steven Universe seems really cool and smart on the surface…until you realise it kind of doesn’t make sense and dramatically decreases the scope of the universe and conflict.
In my opinion, storytellers need to focus on:
-Building a character’s arc (And maybe not just always basing them on your desired persona)
-Learning to be cruel to your character and not just love them
-Tell the most interesting part of their story
-Leave the world as background details
-Try not to make your big fancy worlds incredibly small in scope
I want stories to continue to be told well and not just turn into an era of self-loving stories with intricate worlds that no one remembers.
I thank you for reading, and apologies to those this angers (but I don’t apologise for writing this).
If you want recommendations of films that can teach you how to tell great stories:
-Star Wars: A New Hope
-The Lion King
-Avengers: Infinity War
-No Country for Old Men
-Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
And for a few videos on YouTube to help: