Tag Archives: character development

Hanging Out

Upon having it recommended to me independently by two friends, I’ve finally started reading The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. And the book’s delightful; it’s a space opera about people on a ship written by a writer who’s clearly seen the same movies, read the same books, and played the same video games as me. It’s one of those books I can’t stop reading but don’t want to end.

It’s a very episodic book; while there is a definite narrative throughline, thus far (I’m about halfway through) it’s been secondary to the misadventures the crew have been having along the way. And I’m totally fine with that.

Which is strange, because last week I harangued Crazy Rich Asians for spending too much time lollygagging and not enough time plotting. Asians is characterized by episodic misadventures until a whole lot of plot shows up in the final hundred-odd pages, but I found it frustrating.

And I think there’s a clear reason why.

And it’s not the spaceship thing.

It’s characters.

Like I said last week, the folks in Crazy Rich Asians are more cipher than characters, bodies with a trait or two slapped on them to say what’s needed for the scene. They’ve no inner life. The characters in Long Way, conversely, are sharply defined with a rich sense of history to them. They feel distinct, different; like you could hold a real conversation with them. And so, when placed in an episodic narrative, it’s fun to see them interact with each other, to watch them hang out.

It’s a benefit of long-form storytelling. The deft writing in The Avengers characterizes the heroes well enough that you wish there was more time to see them hanging out together. A book has plenty of space for that to happen.

As do video games. Arguably one of the strongest aspects of the original Mass Effect trilogy is how well Shepard and (most of) his/her crew is sketched out. You have someone like Mordin, a former black-ops scientist/commando turned doctor who also sings showtunes. Which is interesting enough, but it’s when he’s mixed in with Shepard that things get really good. Interacting with Mordin on his loyalty mission in 2 has you grappling with the morality of the Genophage (a virus that affects the reproduction rate of a martial species). Was it a necessary measure? Do the krogan deserve a second chance? Good characters enhance each other; iron sharpens iron and all that. Captain America and Iron Man each push each other on and force the other to be more stubborn. It’s around Inara that Malcolm Reynolds will let the holes in his armor show. Barney and Robin drink scotch and smoke cigars.

The final DLC for Mass Effect 3, Citadel, is essentially all hanging out with your crew. You get small side quests with each one and then throw a big party with these characters you’ve spent tens of hours over multiple games getting to know. It’s great fun and a fond farewell. It wouldn’t work near as well had these characters not been so well done. If the games didn’t give you the time to get to know them or made these characters worth knowing, it’d just be a drag of cutscenes while you waited to get back to shooting stuff.

I think that’s a hallmark of good characters; you feel like you know them. The characters of a tv show start to feel like your friends. When I talk about my crew in Mass Effect, they’re my crew, who I fought the Collectors and Reapers with. And with characters like that, I don’t mind watching them going on misadventures.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Masculinity in Age of Ultron

I saw Age of Ultron Thursday night and I have thoughts. There’s the obvious nerd-out factor of the film, and it’s really cool and does a lot of things right (and, arguably, does indeed go smaller than the first Avengers), but those are essays rants for another day.

So let’s talk about how the movie portrays the idea of masculinity. Because it’s actually really interesting.

Age of Ultron, like The Avengers before it and probably every Marvel movie until I get my friggin’ Captain Marvel movie, is very male dominated. But that doesn’t stop it from portraying a variety of roles for the men to take on. Macho men being manly all the time this is not, rather the Avengers portray different shades of masculinity.

Bruce Banner may be the most obvious. His ‘alter-ego’ is inherently violent and destructive, a stark contrast to his more mild-mannered usual self. He’s a violent man who eschews violence. Here’s a man who would rather that problems not be solved by punching.

This serves as something of an antithesis to Thor, who delights in battle (and tries to comfort Bruce at one point by telling him how well he fought). That said, when Thor competes with Tony, it’s not over who’s the better fighter. Instead they’re boasting of the impressive accomplishments of their significant others. Implicit here is that these two who embody traditionally masculine traits (Thor’s the fighter, Tony is characteristically bawdy) are both with accomplished and important women, and both are okay with it. Being ‘manly’ doesn’t mean downplaying the accomplishments of others and sometimes it means deferring to that as the true measure by which they measure themselves.

It’s Steven Rogers, though, who as Captain America is in some regards the paragon of masculinity: he’s brave, physically fit, honorable, a leader, and so on. But at the same time he’s also humble, he hopes for the best in people, is willing to be vulnerable, and knows he can’t always do it alone. He’s a lot like Captain Awesome from Chuck, in that he embodies a sort of ideal masculinity, but without a lot of the toxicity that goes with it.

Which brings me to Hawkeye, who gets a vastly expanded role in this film. Not only do we get a deeper look into his inner life, but we also see his role as a part of the team. Clint is, not unlike his comics counterpart, effectively the most normal of the Avengers. More than that, though, he’s the one with the most normal and fulfilled personal life, making him also the most stable; the least ‘manly’ of the Avengers is also the one who’s got it the most together. Furthermore, within Age of Ultron he carries much of the film’s emotional weight; he may not be the hardest hitter but he is the heart. In many other stories this position is usually occupied by a woman, or the most feminine one if there are multiple (think Katara from Avatar and Kaylee from Firefly). Clint isn’t seen as less capable for it; he, like Raleigh in Pacific Rim, portrays a form of masculinity that’s supportive in nature.

The male action hero has been somewhat pigeonholed over the years. There’s an immense focus on the John McLane, John Matrix, and Indiana Jones type, that is the swaggering, self-reliant, gun toting, never backing down sort. Compare The Expendables, an ensemble cast of very traditionally manly action heroes, to Age of Ultron. The former are all cut from the same hyper-masculine cloth, whereas the male Avengers are more nuanced. None of them are seen as lesser for not being as much of a brawler as Thor or as brave as Captain America. Rather, the film acknowledges that masculinity comes in different forms and that’s perfectly okay.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Real Swell Guy

Let’s talk about Chuck, because it’s a fantastic show that you should watch if you haven’t. And not just ‘cuz Chuck and I are basically the same person, but because it’s a well put together show with a lot of fun stories and great characters.

But those characters are a big reason. You’ve got Chuck and his two spy handlers and their dynamic and interactions, but they’re not who this is post is about.

This post it about one of the supporting characters: Captain Awesome (or Devon Woodcomb as he’s actually named and sometimes called). Awesome is Chuck’s sisters’s boyfriend-then-husband who, in earlier seasons, lives with Chuck and his sister, Ellie). He’s a cardiothoracic surgeon who enjoys adventure sports, and flossing. He’s plain awesome.

Which makes for a great contrast with the protagonist, Chuck, especially at the top of the series. Chuck didn’t finish college, doesn’t have a girlfriend, and is stuck in a dead end job. His life is going nowhere. Awesome is everything Chuck is not.

Awesome, as a character, was conceived by the writers as “the worst possible person for Chuck to come home too.” And he is, in a way; he’s the one with his life together, he’s everything Chuck is not which accentuates just how much of a loser Chuck feels he is. So as a storytelling device, Awesome works well, perfectly.

It would be really easy for the show to just stop there. Leave Devon as a bit of a caricature who pops in to a scene as his awesome self and leaves shortly after. Alternately, Captain Awesome could be a major jerk. He’s fully aware of how great he is, so the writers could really have pushed the Mister Perfect angle and made him utterly insufferable. If they did that Chuck would have had an antagonist whenever he came home: here’s this guy who not only has his life together but has everything going for him and he will remind you of it at any moment, especially if it helps bring you down. So bam, between tension at his day job, all the fun and games of being a spy, and Devon waiting at home; Chuck’s life is rife for conflict.

Yet, fortunately, Captain Awesome is not remotely like that.

Instead of being huge pain, Devon is instead one of the most genuinely nice guys, well, ever. For example, when asked by Jeff, one of Chuck’s deadbeat coworkers at the BuyMore, if Awesome’s ever had a dream that’s never come true, Devon thinks a beat before simply saying no. Again, this is one of those scenes where he could come off as conceited, but its the sincerity with which he says it that helps you love him. He’s just a good guy who, even though things have always gone right for him, is willing to help anyone else. Though he’s never had a dream not come true, Devon offers Jeff a (potentially disastrous) chance for his to come true. Devon’s written earnestly and is a wonderful character on the show. If the main characters of Chuck made Captain Planet, he’d have the Power of Heart.

I cannot stress enough how fine a line the characterization of Captain Awesome walks. He could have become someone we’d desperately want Chuck to punch in the face, or even just a total pushover who gets walked over by everyone else. It says a lot about the writing and Ryan McPartlin’s performance that he feels plain genuine. They could have deconstructed the character, or maybe given him a dark backstory (think Rich of Community’s “Beginner Pottery”), but instead they had him, well, as him; as someone too perfect to hate or be hated. Captain Awesome as a whole says a lot about the caliber of characterization on Chuck. They were able to take characters who, by all accounts, should have been one note but make them interesting. Devon is one of them and, man, he’s just a real swell guy.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

For Want of a Glass of Water

Kurt Vonnegut once said, “every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” This piece of advice functions as a very simple and straightforward way to ensure a character has some semblance of depth.

What’s important about a goal? A goal gives a character purpose and gives an audience a reason to invest. In Star Wars, Luke wants to leave Tatooine. In How I Met Your Mother, Ted wanted to meet the mother (or at least we thought he did). In Pirates of the Caribbean, Jack Sparrow wants his ship back. As viewers, we want characters to want something. It’s dull if a character just exists with no want (i.e. Ted for many of the later seasons of Mother). Chuck begins with a very complacent Chuck who’s just floating through life. Receiving the Intersect gives him a purpose too.

Characters then have to do something about it. Solid Snake crawls trough a microwave chamber in Metal Gear Solid 4 to stop the Patriots. Katniss famously volunteers as tribute. Taking a proactive role about their goals is what separates Katniss from Bella Swan. The former may want Edward and/or Jacob, but she just sits around; Katniss actively fights for not only her life, but for those of her friends. It’s not enough for a character to have a goal, they have to do something about it. Jack Sparrow spending two hours talking about how much he wants the Black Pearl would be a terribly boring movie.

Those are the fundamentals of having a potentially interesting character. Following that we need conflict. There has to be something stopping the character from getting what they want. Harry wants to be a wizard with the sense of family and acceptance it entails, Voldemort wants him dead. That conflict of interest fills seven books. This so called ‘external conflict’ as your High School English teacher called it can be far more subtle. In The Last of Us, Joel’s goal becomes to protect Ellie whereas her goal is to make her life count. For the most part the goals don’t interfere, but when they do we get some magnificent, quiet drama.

Additionally, having the protagonist conflicted makes them that much more interesting as we get to watch them change or resist it. Columbus in Zombieland already has the zombies interfering with his goal of staying alive. His emergent want to win Wichita’s heart, though, also screws with his sense of self-preservation. Suddenly, Columbus has to make a choice: what does he value more, his life or Wichita? A conflict like this forces the character to change. Columbus has always been a wimp, someone who’d rather cower than take action. His interactions with Wichita force him to nut up and grow.

But what if she doesn’t get the water? Sometimes the most interesting thing to happen in a story is for the character to not achieve their goal. Tom’s goal in (500) Days of Summer is to win Summer’s heart, then to stay with Summer, and then to win her back. It’s his proverbial glass of water and what the film centers on. Tom, however, doesn’t end up with Summer. The complete destruction of his goal forces him to reassess everything and, eventually, gets him back on track to doing what he wants in life. Losing the goal he thinks he wanted reveals what he really wanted. Like a conflicted desire, it gives added layers to his character.

Conversely, achieving a goal may crush the character. Zero Dark Thirty ends with Bin Laden dead and Maya Lambert successful. She’s achieved her goal, but her goal was all consuming. The film leaves her suddenly aimless and without purpose, adding a sense of somber hollowness to it all. Just as giving a desultory character a goal yields interest, so does robbing a purposeful character of hers.

Wants and goals fuel stories. Look at Game of Thrones, everyone wants something, almost always at the expense of someone else. These goals breed conflict and add depth to characters. Just make it more than a glass of water.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Once Again on SHIELD

Yep. I’m talking about this show again. Because it’s great and I don’t have much time to watch new movies (besides The Dark World) or read or play much video games. So we’re talking about Agents of SHIELD again.

The show started strong and since then has steadily improved in itself. Characters have been fleshed out, dynamics enhanced, and it’s proved itself capable with taking on different sorts of plots. What’s even better is that all of this is usually done together, rather than individually.

See, it’s easy to do these one at a time. When How I Met Your Mother does a high-concept episode it’s usually at the expense of characterization. This isn’t necessarily bad, there’s nothing wrong with a plot-powered episode in a show that’s usually very character driven. Shows like Community and Lost occasionally mix new concepts with character growth (see “Remedial Chaos Theory” and “The Constant”), but beyond that mixes are few and far between.

SHIELD is one of them. The most recent, “F.Z.Z.T.,” dispenses with the usual good-guys-fighting-bad-guys typical of shows like this in favor of a far more internal conflict, one that can’t be shot at. What’s remarkable is that the writers take this in stride, maintaining high tension throughout an episode where the action could be described as “they science stuff.”

Not only was it well done, but the plot allowed for some fantastic character moments. With the conflict science based, we were able to see Ward grapple with being powerless. Similarly, it allowed the show to further explore the dynamic of Fitz and Simmons. Prior they’d been presented as two parts of a whole, albeit two parts with a few contrasts. “F.Z.Z.T.” explored those contrasts, really highlighting not only what makes them individuals, but also why they work together. It’s a character study facilitated by a shift in the nature of the conflict.

The best character moment, however, is probably Coulson’s. With a relatively quiet threat, we’re able to see more of Coulson’s character. When he comforts a firefighter we begin to see the consequences his death had on him. When Simmons is at risk we his his steadfast devotion to saving his team. And lastly, his own doubts about himself show is another side of him. He becomes far more deep and we, as an audience, are informed that there is baggage there to be worked out. And baggage makes for good television.

“F.Z.Z.T.” is another step forward for Agents of SHIELD for so many reasons. Characters are stronger, humor hits more, and the drama’s more dramatic. I was excited when the show first aired, now I’m thrilled with where this show is going.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Protagonists, Goals, and Conviction

Let’s talk about the characters in The Last of Us. Because I still want to talk about that game. For the sake of direction, we’ll focus on Joel and Ellie, because they’re the protagonists (and arguably each other’s antagonist) and you spend nearly eighteen hours with them.

 

I’m going to try to keep this mostly spoiler-free, but since this’ll be discussing characters and arcs and development, be warned of mentions and implications and stuff. If you’re playing the game right now or are planning to in the near future, might be best to avoid this.

 

So. Characters.

 

The dynamic of Joel and Ellie is not like Batman/Robin’s hero/sideckick or even a sort of Riggs/Murtaugh case of contrasting partners. Sure, they have their joint task of getting Ellie to the Fireflies, but there’s nothing personal to that; it’s what they’ve been told to do. That hardly makes for interesting characters. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut: “Every character has to want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” So what do Joel and Ellie want?

 

Ellie’s goal is made clear in early conversations: she wants her life to be for something; she doesn’t want to just exist. Like all good goals, it sheds a lot of light on her character. See, Ellie was born after the outbreak, she’s used to a world where people have resigned themselves to the bleak status quo (and eventual death). She wants more than that.

 

Joel’s goal is more fluid. At the outset, he’s content to just get by. Enter Ellie, the other protagonist. She’s serves as his antagonist just as he does hers; she interferes with his life and forces him to find a new goal and he is the catalyst for her ability to journey after her goal. Joel can no longer live just for the sake of surviving, he has to change. There are no other candidates for an antagonist in the game; the Infected, hunters, and other enemies are exactly that: enemies without personification. Eventually, Joel does change and he does achieve his new goal, he finds a new reason to live.

 

What complicates this is that Ellie’s goal cannot coexist with Joel’s new goal. Joel now wants to protect Ellie best he can, but this protection means that Ellie cannot do the thing she thinks she might be meant to do. Now we see Joel as Ellie’s antagonist in full. There’s tension in the dynamic but no enmity; rather it’s iron sharpening iron as Joel and Ellie rub off on each other and challenge the other to do more as they forge their pseudo-father/daughter relationship.

 

The Last of Us, however, merrily subverts any innate expectation a player might have of that dynamic. Ellie doesn’t sit around waiting for Joel to save her: she’ll often stab people in the back or save Joel from a dead end. But, like Elena and Chloe from Naughty Dog’s other PS3 games, Ellie’s not just there for support or a sort of surrogate daughter but a strong character in her own right. Her cheerfulness masks a strong sense of survival’s guilt (which, again, stems from her want). She’s used to the violence littering the post-apocalyptic world but she’ll still wince at Joel’s brutality. Neil Druckmann wrote a character who’s incredibly interesting, and, yes, happens to be a woman in a video game. On that note, it’s worth mentioning that she’s never portrayed patronizingly or as an act of affirmative action. More so than Joel, Ellie has a sense of personal direction for much of the game. Though she’s not quite sure where she’s going, she has a conviction about her life.

 

Interestingly, Joel lacks much of this conviction. More interestingly, he’s the character you play as for almost the entirety of the game. In The Last of Us you only play as a character when their conviction is shaken and they’re not entirely sure what they should do. Often Joel’s not even sure how to get somewhere and is following someone else’s lead. He’s listless and without any driving force for much of the game. He’s looking for a reason to survive, remember?

 

Contrast this with Uncharted where Nathan Drake’s going after the treasure or saving the world (he’s a little sketchy on the how) or Halo’s Master Chief who has a very clear direction of defeat the bad guys and save the world. This is what sets The Last of Us apart: the perennial “what now?” And where do we see this the most? In the characters: the complex, layered characters of The Last of Us.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Change is Good

The TV show Chuck begun with a really simple conceit: nerdy, intelligent twenty-something stuck in a crappy deadend job in a BestBuy BuyMore suddenly finds himself with a CIA computer (the Intersect) in his brain and involved with various spy activities with agents from the NSA and CIA.

Simple.

The show could have very easily fallen into step; keep the perpetual romantic tension between Chuck and Sarah (the CIA agent) with Casey (the NSA one) filling the role of the authority figure. They’d fight the villain of the week and just maintain that status quo. It’d be fun, filled with great gags with Chuck and best friend Morgan or with his inability to really mesh with the whole spy gig. Instant formula.

Only they didn’t.

In Season Two, Chuck gets the Intersect out of his head. But then the show plays with the idea of the Intersect, giving him a new one that rather than just information, gives him skills too. So come Season Three, Chuck, now an intermittent badass, is able to actually take to the field. He and Sarah become a committed couple (eschewing the will-they-or-won’t-day schtick), and Morgan is let in on Chuck’s double life. As the series continues Chuck loses the Intersect and becomes a spy in his own right, Casey softens into the papa wolf of the group (which in turn expands to include Morgan and Chuck’s sister and brother-in-law). Seasons 4 and 5 were very different from Seasons 1 and 2. The show kept its heart throughout, but allowed its characters to grow.

TV’s a special medium. It’s a blend of short and long-form storytelling, one that allows for long arcs and even changing genres. Look at Lost. The show shifted gears from mostly a drama-mystery to mostly science-fiction show. But, despite the change, it remained heavily character focused right up to and during the end. Lost couldn’t have kept spinning its wheels with the castaways on the island idea, it had to develop beyond the simple idea.

What happens if a show does stay the same? Look at The Office, which began to wear out its format and stories a while ago. Recently, though, the show has begun to explore its idea of being a mocumentary and, with only a couple episodes left, allow its characters to really start making big life choices (that would have them leaving Dunder Mifflin and thus the show). In this case, the show format grew to hamper the story. Anything we saw on camera had to be justifiably filmed by the documentary crew.

Sometimes watching characters grow and change is good too. Look at How I Met Your Mother over the years. Granted, some episodes/storylines fall flat and nothing seems to happen, but the show isn’t afraid to let the characters grow. Barney, for example, grew from a one-note womanizer to an engaged man. Their friendship remains constant, but they’re all in different places from where they were seven years ago. ‘cuz, y’know, people change.

Which brings me to Community. Here again we have a show that’s changed over the years as characters develop and relationships change. Abed has become more social and Jeff legitimately cares now. It’s not as much of a black-and-white change as in other shows, but the dynamic between characters steadily grows and shifts over time. Watching Season One makes you realize just where these characters go. It stays interesting.

I find TV to be a fascinating medium with great potential. Shows like Lost and Game of Thrones wouldn’t work as a film. Long arcs play out so much better in television, especially when they’re character focused. One thing that Chuck, How I Met Your Mother, and Community all have in common is that though some of the storylines can be farfetched and goofy, the characters are always treated with a level of respect and allowed to grow over time. No matter how unrealistic the world around them can get, the characters stay grounded. The shows continue to be interesting and we really begin to fall in love with them and who they are. They change, and change is good. Sure beats pulling a The Big Bang Theory and making the same joke for years on end.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized