Tag Archives: Twilight

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.

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Protagonists and Such

Call him the main character, the lead, the hero, the player character; most every good story has a protagonist. He (or she) is the person we follow. Either because they provide the viewpoint and let us into the world or because they’re out on a grand quest. A lot of stories rise and fall based on the protagonist (or lack thereof).

The lack of a protagonist in The Phantom Menace is one of its shortcomings. Obi-Wan would make a great one, only he winds up playing second fiddle to…well, everyone for much of the film (and sits out all of Tatooine). What about Anakin? He doesn’t get introduced until Tatooine and has no character arc (what’s his motivation?) beyond being the kid who wins the podrace and blows up the droid control ship. Heck, he hardly does jack on Coruscant.

Padme, then! Only she doesn’t do much of anything (besides the senate thing) and her duplicity as to who’s actually her and who’s a handmaiden hamper our getting into her as a main character.

Fine! Qui-Gon! He’s awesome, he gets the plot moving, he can be the protagonist, right? Only no. He plays the mentor archetype, the one who guides the protagonist along. Qui-Gon is a static character who guides the plot, but has no personal investment. Plus, at the climax, the duel with Darth Maul is (sad to say) completely irrelevant to the plot.

Basically: there’s no protagonist in The Phantom Menace, no one for us to root for besides the umbrella of “the good guys”. It hampers our investment in the story. It worked for The Empire Strikes Back because we already had our investment in Luke and Han from A New Hope, but in the latter Luke was unquestionably our viewpoint character and protagonist. Menace has no such luck.

Not to say having a clear protagonist means we’ve got a good story on our hands. Let’s look at Twilight (having read a crappy book makes for good examples). Bella is unquestionably the protagonist, but she lacks anything that makes us care. She has no motivation past getting Edward to fall in love with her. She’s boring and has little characterization/use besides being an avatar for the reader. If the protagonist has no proper characterization, arc, or motivation it becomes hard to get invested.

Look, a work doesn’t have to be high art to have a protagonist. Rod, from Hot Rod, is an example of a great protagonist. Does he have characterization? He’s a delusional, hubristic wannabe stuntman, so yes. His arc is to get the girl and save his stepfather’s life so he can kick his ass. Why? Because he wants his stepfather to respect him. Yes, Hot Rod is a (hilarious) stupid film, but there’s a clear protagonist. It works! The Princess Bride has Westley and Buttercup as protagonists and Fezzik and Inigo as deuteragonists. Escape from New York has Snake Plisskin, Final Fantasy VII has Cloud, Chuck has Chuck.

But what about ensembles? Shows like Firefly, How I Met Your Mother, and Lost; who’s the actual protagonist? That’s the beauty of tv, supporting characters can all get their spot in the limelight. An episode like “Ariel” has Simon as one of the primary protagonists, or “The Constant” has Desmond as its protagonist. Several protagonists are far easier in an episodic serial.

Now the big question. The Avengers. It’s got seven main characters (Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Loki). Who’s the protagonist?

They all are. Each one has their character arc and/or motivations (Loki wants to go home, Iron Man grows into a hero, Hawkeye wants to make up for what he did, etc). With or without the prior movies, each protagonist is set up in The Avengers and winds up as a realized character. You can call any one of them the lead (well, maybe not Hawkeye [it’s workable, but definitely a bit of a stretch]), and the movie still works. You can have multiple protagonists, so long as they’re actually protagonists and not a cast of supporting characters.

It feels like it’s the obvious thing. Stories need not just a protagonist, but a good one. Motivations, characterization, an arc and all that. A good protagonist can help even a mediocre plot. Somewhat, anyway. Y’kinda need the whole lot to tell a good story.

But you already knew that.


Also: buy my book In Transit! Each story has a clear protagonist!

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Good Female Protagonists

The Hunger Games is out now in cinemas. It’s a film based on a book that apparently is wild popular among teenage girls. A lot of people have likened it to the next Twilight.

I, as a guy who’s read both book series, am here to tell you that no, no, that’s wrong, man!

See, Katniss is a great example of a Good Female Protagonist. Bella, eh, not so much. At all.

It’s really weird. After all these years we still freak out and go “Holy crap guys, it’s a Good Female Protagonist!” when we see her in a movie that’s not targeted at women. It’s as if she’s a quaint little oddity you find in only the most obscure media.

Not that movies are helping. Bella, of Twilight, is an example of an absolutely horrible horrible character (female or otherwise). Yes, this is a film/book targeted at girls, but that’s not an excuse.
She is entirely reactionary. Her personality revolves around what happens around her. It’s always “if they, then”. The love triangle in the latter bits seem to be dependent on who she’s with. Bella has no motivations, no desires beyond, well, get with a guy.
Again, and this is an oddly appropriate point to stress, I have read these books. I know what I’m talking about.

And Katniss of The Hunger Games? She causes the action. Her involvement in the game is of her own volition. Although she has little control over her situations and what life hands her she very much controls what she does in each situation. She’s not reactionary or passive, Her pattern is “if I then”.
As for the love triangle that’s garnered an unfortunate amount of press? Katniss lacks the flippancy of Bella. Furthermore the triangle is interwoven with the books’ themes as a whole (which is a testament to good overall writing beyond characterization, which in turn is not the focus of this essay).

It’s more than clear that Katniss is a whole different breed of protagonist: she thinks, plans, and connives. She knows exactly what she wants and she strives to achieve it. She has a personality.

Through all this I find it important to point out that, besides Katniss, there are fantastic, well developed, interesting female protagonists. Interestingly enough, they can be found where you’d least expect it: Video Games.

Hear me out. I know video games tend to present women as caricatures to cater to their demographic, but there are exceptions. And these are good.

Final Fantasy XIII (which isn’t the 12th sequel but— it’s complicated) had, for the first time, a woman as the main character. Lightning wasn’t hyper-sexualized (as other characters in the series have been) and her gender never came up as an issue. She had her dreams and wishes; she had her obstacles to overcome.
The writers have said that when writing Lightning they just wrote her as if she was a man. I’m not sure whether that undercuts everything I’ve said, or is just an interesting aside.

So what’s a good example? What’s my favorite example? No, not Pepper Potts and Black Widow in the Iron Man movies (though they do count), I’m going back to video games again.

Elena Fisher and Chloe Frazer are the two girls in Uncharted 2. Both women are strong, independent, know what they want and how to get it. They’re more than plot devices or eye candy. They have characterization, they develop as the story progresses, they change. They’re actual people.

When asked why he insists on writing strong female characters, Joss Whedon (guy behind Firefly) quipped: “because you’re still asking me that question”. It’s unfortunate that they are still so rare. But they’re out there; be they named Katniss, Lightning, or Elena. We can just hope that trend follows that set by The Hunger Games rather than that of Twilight.

So go watch The Hunger Games, money speaks after all.

Writer’s Note: Yes, I know I’ve left out other great examples. This was written at about one in the morning and I didn’t feel like sussing them out. Forgive me.
Also, I know that you may not be familiar with these characters from FFXIII or Uncharted. Just google “Uncharted Cutscene Elena” or something. Or take my word on it.

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