There’s that moment when you’re watching Empire Strikes Back, right near the beginning, when you hear the hum and roar of the Echo Base hangar and watch Han cuss out Chewie for taking something apart he just tried to fix, when you realize: I love these guys. And you do. You want to live with them; you want to sling up a hammock in the Falcon and ride along for their adventures, no matter where they lead, because Han is awesome and Chewie is like the best friend you never had and you want to know what the inside of that ship smells like or how the air on Hoth feels against your cheeks. It is at that moment that, against all reason, the world of Star Wars has you. Your heart is in your throat for the rest of it, come what may, because Han and Chewie and Luke and Leia are your friends.
It happens again, at least for me, in Willow. There is Mad Martigan, still partially in drag, still loopy from the brownie’s true-love dust, getting screamed at by Willow (again), being charged by Nokmar soldiers…
…and then he gets a sword. Magic happens.
It happens with Indiana Jones running through the South American jungles in Raiders, it happens with Tyrion when he walks out of the Eyrie with a smile on his face, it happens with Jack Sparrow and Long John Silver, with Mal Reynolds and Buffy, with Kirk and McCoy – that single, almost unquantifiable thing that happens when you discover that you really do love these people. You could read stories about them forever, or so you think.
Yet, it isn’t really true.
How we fall in love and out of love with characters (or how we never manage to) is the sort of bottled lightning that probably every author seeks to capture. You try to make your characters relatable, flawed, but also idealized and perfect (somehow). You give them senses of humor, you have them complain about stuff just like a regular person, and then, once you’ve tied the audience to them as tightly as a ship to its anchor, you heave those characters overboard and watch the people squirm. When you watch Han let Lando borrow the Falcon to fly in the Battle of Endor, your heart is in your throat. You can scarcely look as the flames burn up around the cockpit as the ship is trying to make it out of the Death Star and then, for that brief fleeting moment that you think Lando is gone, your breathing stops. You’re frozen, almost as in grief for a real person, but before you can figure it out the ship shoots out into space, the music rises, and you’re there cheering.
Then, wierdly, you can find yourself down the road a bit and looking over the latest atrocious Pirates of the Caribbean sequel and find you no longer care. They lost you. You couldn’t care less if (Captain) Jack Sparrow is tossed over the side with cannonballs around his ankles ten minutes into the movie. Whatever. He’s just some fictional character now; you don’t know him from Adam.
What is the magic formula, then? How can you whip yourself up a batch of loveable characters and keep them that way? The fact is that the answer isn’t an easily quantifiable one. If it were, movies like GI Joe: Rise of Cobra or Cutthroat Island, which try so very hard, wouldn’t fail so miserably. If once you made it you kept it by default, I wouldn’t find myself reading A Dance with Dragons and deciding I don’t really care what happens to Tyrion anymore. There’s a kind of storytelling alchemy at work here, a theoretical paradigm we are all trying to achieve, and there seems to be no sure way to pull it off. Like the perfect game or the hole in one, it only happens once a career if you’re lucky.
But we all keep trying, don’t we? We want that moment where the audience cares for our characters as much as we do, but, like any loving parent, it is sometimes so very hard to see the flaws in those you love with all your heart.
An acquaintance of mine, author Rich Steeves (check him out here), drew my attention on facebook to this post by comic writer Jim Shooter regarding violence, killing, and heroes. His overall thesis, in brief, is this:
My feeling is that each heroic character should be true to his core concept. Some few will not kill. Period. Most, I think, will kill in extremis. Some, of the new bad-boy “hero” ilk will kill when it is “fair” enough, but not really unavoidable. Some kill seemingly callously or carelessly. “It’s okay, they’re bad guys.”
Whether the characters at any particular level on the killing scale are “heroes,” I suppose, is up to the beholder. To me, the latter two categories might be protagonists, but aren’t heroes or heroic in my book. Doesn’t mean they aren’t legit protagonists, or can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done. Do them well, I say. True to their core concepts.
But be conscious of consequences.
I think this is both very true and something to keep in mind anytime we are writing about violence, heroic or otherwise, or even playing violent characters in RPGs. Killing–murder, by any other word–is a heavy and significant thing for a human being to undertake. It has weight–moral, psychological, perhaps even physical–and that weight ought to be taken into account.
If you’ve got a character who can blithely kill and then go about their business with no repurcussions, you are either dealing with a sociopath or someone who, through a variety of factors and psychological defenses, has somehow inured him or herself to the act. That’s a big deal from a characterization point of view. There are, of course, lots and lots of ways to interpret it, but I think forgetting about it or glossing it over is a bad idea. In the first place it portrays killing people as ‘no big deal’–this isn’t true at all in the real world and, provided we are writing about worlds that are close parallels to the real thing, it should be the same in our own fantastic and speculative realms. In the second place, it’s lazy characterization. You mean your 18 year old protagonist just shot some gangsters with her father’s shotgun, and she’s not thinking about it afterwards? Really? It doesn’t have an affect on how she talks to people? How she feels about guns? How she feels about gangsters? Come on!
I very much agree with Shooter’s assertion that we must be aware of our characters’ ‘core concepts’. These kinds of things are easily violated or changed–the fundemental moral makeup of who you are isn’t under as much of your own control as you think. Yeah, Conan doesn’t give a damn how many fools he kills in bloody fashion–it doesn’t phase him. Do you know why? He has lived a life of constant hardship and pain and been forced to adapt. He is a damaged person, fundamentally. That doesn’t necessarily make him an evil man, or even perhaps keep him from being a hero (depending on your definition of heroism, naturally), but it is an aspect of his character we need to understand and appreciate. If we are portraying characters killing people, it’s something we, as writers, actors, players, or whatever else, really need to give some thought. If you ever want to see how it’s done, just look no further than Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece, Unforgiven.
We all have it coming. Think about that.