'Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.'
- Helen Keller
'Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.'
- Abraham Lincoln
I have several requests for journals (and much appreciated!) by :iconorcanumino3:
Unfortunately I need to see and experience a lot of things requested before I can provide them a proper review, so between times here's another little musing on my part.
Composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein once said something in an instructional video to the orchestra which expanded my young mind: "For something to be humorous, something must be destroyed."
Whether it's logic, a person's dignity, an unbroken series of events, a sense of suspense, a societal law...something broken in an unexpected way can yield laughs as much as tears or shouts of rage. It all depends on context. Someone falling down the stairs in a horror film to lie still in a bloody heap elicits shrieks and groans of terror. Someone falling down the stairs but landing flat and unbloodied, muttering 'ow' while seemingly not seriously injured can be cause for laughter at their expense or at the expense of reality as a fall from so far would usually yield death or horrific results, not mild inconvenience. A villain taking a shot or a punch from our hero and tumbling down the stairs to a much deserved fate can make way for cheers of victory.
The same general scenario but different emotions. And all because something was impacted. Something effected.
Something drastic occurred to make us pay attention.
Tension and suspense are part and parcel with interest to me in general. Two people can be carrying on a conversation but if I can sense strained emotions, crisis of conscience, goals conflicting or emotions in contention it can be just as (if not more) entertaining then a million faceless warriors shooting at each other.
I was just watching again the BBC dramatization of The Barchester Chronicles: a comedy of manners by Anthony Trollope. It's the story of a Warden named Septimus Harding who is conflicted about remaining in charge of a hospital after a reformer published a nasty article about him, accusing him of corruption and living too well. Harding decides instead of living in guilt (although needlessly as he's a generous man) he'll leave his beloved Barchester county and move to a smaller parish. Now you might suppose a story in which there is no fighting (someone gets slapped on the ear for an indecent proposal once), no sex, no cruelty, not even poverty would be very boring. Where's the action? More importantly, where's the suspense and the tension?
The answer lies in a place few seem to consider the basic well of all things compelling: THE CHARACTERS.
Septimus is fascinating just by himself. He's a man of strong faith but of somewhat soft demeanor who doesn't like conflict in any form so instead of inviting it he yields every time he's challenged. Others (especially his more confrontational friend the archbishop Grantley) consider this attitude of his to be a weakness of character, but they have to admit that even if Septimus is a pushover in all other ways he's such a decent man he's hard to dislike. Even the reformer John Bold who lambastes the Warden in his newspaper comes to regard Septimus as a good man, even if he still can't convince himself the church as a whole is not corrupt. From the word go we have opposing perspectives which are also united in an uneasy truce. Because of social niceties nobody can, or (really feels the need to) express themselves through overt violence or shouting. So everything done is done quietly, within the confines of proper behavior...but boiling with suppressed emotions. Septimus is nearly driven mad by his regret at seeming to take advantage of others with his money and his position while Bold is torn by his desire to change the world and expose extravagance...while also trying to avoid hurting a man he's come to respect.
There's also the fact that Bold is courting Septimus' daughter.
The Barchester Chronicles is like a condensing of the basic beats of a classic adventure tale only without the necessity of empty action. Action can be exciting if it's to some kind of purpose and something seems at risk. In Trollope's tales something as simple as who will inherit something or who will propose to who is treated like a silent war being fought between wills. A tea party is fraught with tension if everyone involved has different motives and not everyone present likes all the guests but doesn't wish to let on their feelings. Expression is a weakness, and it's so much more potent to shutdown or even payback someone for a slight if you can do it with a smile and make it seem like you're doing them a favor. For instance the slap mentioned. Obadiah Slope (played by the inimitable Alan Rickman in the BBC series) is trying to convince a wealthy widow to marry him, partially out of affection but mostly out of ambition. He lays on the proposal too thick and the widow swats him in the ear. A duchess hears of this secret event, invites him to a party, and proceeds to basically tease him the entire afternoon all because she had previously been the object of Obadiah's pursuits. The whole sequence has neither character entirely admit their animosity to one another (Slope wanted to be rid of her and she is getting revenge on Slope) so their conversation goes from being a mere trifle to a verbal sword fight. Every little furtive glance, pause, guarded sneer is like a parry and a thrust. It's the most sophisticated expression of abject distaste one could ask for.
Inside the tension lies the interest of the scene. Had either characters or both been entirely devoid of opposing perspectives or had no goals to achieve the conversation would have indeed been boring. But Trollope deftly ignores sequences that MIGHT be dull (much of a garden party is overlooked in favor of a few key characters have important conversations) to keep the plot and the arcs of the characters in motion at all times. Presumably these characters eat, sleep, bathe and such but unless those actions are specifically related to the story beats which hold the tension they are not dwelt on.
I can't help but compare this to another movie I saw: In A Valley of Violence with Ethan Hawk and John Travolta. It was crushingly boring, especially compared to Barchester, and Valley had multiple gunfights, a throat slitting, horse chases, and dog that did some pretty impressive tricks. The reason I practically gave up almost halfway through the thing when it came to expecting entertainment is that every single character was as paper thin as a napkin.
Ethan was clearly supposed to emulate the infamous 'Man With No Name' as played by Clint Eastwood, but the writer of Valley missed the point. For one thing, Ethan's character HAD a name (the not so imposing 'Paul') and for another we learn everything there is to know about his cliched history of a remorseful soldier who doesn't want to kill anymore but is still super skillful with a six shooter. The Man With No Name probably had a similar past but we never got to know it because it wasn't important. Ironically, it wasn't important in Valley to see the extended flashbacks of Paul either as it had zero impact on the plot. It might have been interesting to know who our main character was if...
A: It related to what he was doing in the film
B: It wasn't so trite you could predict the story before you saw it play out
Neither is true. Paul's backstory is a deadly combination of boring and pointless. And since his enemies are all equally flat and dull, his motive is laughable, and even the direction is lackluster there was nothing to hold my attention.
Tension was gone. People were dying left and right in gory slow motion and I was yawning.
Comparatively I was riveted in sequences involving nothing more than two people sitting on couches opposite each other discussing small town politics because in those moments of The Barchester Chronicles something was actually happening.
Characters aren't just stock figures to move around like pawns on a board to fulfill a plot. Nor are characters neurotic bundles of personal issues meant primarily to shout at each other for the sake of forced melodrama. I didn't care that Peter Parker's father was actually killed by The Sandman in Spiderman 3 because it was so contrived, glossed over, and convenient it wasn't an emotional revelation it was a plot ticket. However something like a major death with purpose, a major decision ending a long standing tradition, someone abandoning their happiness for propriety, someone tackling a dangerous situation for a greater purpose they believe in...these are things that interest me.
Films, comics, games seem convinced that characters are either walking quirks, brooding tools, or tired tropes. The problem with this is that they neglect the most effective and arguably the cheapest way to hold audience interest. The compelling nature of say Indiana Jones is a relatively ordinary guy who seems driven to extraordinary feats by greater convictions. In Raiders he undertakes a ridiculously hazardous mission because of something odd to the ears of a contemporary audience: curiosity. He doesn't want Hitler to get a powerful artifact, but he also is fascinated by the concept of a historically significant relic existing and capable of being discovered and shared with the world. In the second film he undertakes an expedition of exploration again but becomes a champion of freedom in the process, and in the third as well his initial desire to save his father transforms into a battle against evil.
This is one of many reasons the fourth film feels so out of place. Indie isn't looking for the artifact of the title, he's basically dragged into the situation completely against his will and he shows no real interest in either the discovery or the battle. It was enough in the neutered sequel to just have Indie be wacky.
But that wasn't enough.
Wacky people are interesting only if there's something else under the hood. We know plenty of really annoying 'wacky' people probably, partially because their madcap nature appears to compose their total being and so we can't help but be irritated by their superficiality. Someone playing pranks can be fun but if that's all they can do or will do it becomes infuriating.
Going back to Barchester briefly, there's a goofball character called Bertie who is constantly being flippant and making antics...but the major difference is that people in the STORY are annoyed by him. His father practically disowns him for being useless, his halfhearted attempts at love are thwarted, he is basically ignored by everyone except some very close friends. In the end he decides he needs to improve something about his life or he'll likely never get anywhere. He grows as a character by confronting his faults and seeing the good in him through the eyes of his companions.
He's a comic relief...WITH AN ARC!
I mentioned in a previous journal how annoyed I was at a particular scene in Guardians of the Galaxy 2. Here is ostensibly a 'character based' story about a group of ragtag mercenaries thrust together as a family and using their tensions and compatibilities to overcome obstacles. The concluding battle actually has a scene in which Starlord reviews in his head all the times he's been with his friends to psych himself up enough to defeat his enemies.
Only problem...the flashbacks are NOT from the movie.
He sees in his mind a sequence in which he's flying with rocket packs side by side with Rocket Raccoon to remind himself of their friendship, but this moment is not from either the first or second Guardian films. The Guardians are so devoid of meaningful chemistry the filmmakers had to INVENT a sequence in which Starlord and Rocket were actually acting like friends. We needed a cutaway to a new scene we never got to see just so we could have a scene in which Rocket and Starlord weren't arguing with each other or looking glum.
This is the catch twenty two of contemporary media. We need to have messages of 'hope' all the time in theory because that's the sustainability of the human spirit...but we never get to witness that hope in action. We have to believe people are family, but they never act like it. The storytellers of this time have to segregate the characterization from the rest of the plot and it seldom ever works. The bar scene in Suicide Squad, the party scene in Age of Ultron, these and others feel tacked on just to remind us of the people these characters are SUPPOSED to be.
Looking back, consider how our introduction to other classic leads occurred. Super-cop John McClain in Die Hard's first scene is in an airport trying to find an address. He's not introduced fighting anybody, with slow motion or fanfare, he just arrives and we get to know him by his interactions in a city he's not familiar with. Frodo Baggins is introduced sitting in the crook of a tree reading a book and he looks up when he hears the approach of Gandalf with the most innocent and wide grin imaginable. He's immediately present to us as a person and he hasn't said a single word. Han Solo in the original Star Wars sits down beside his looming bodyguard at a table in the shadows and rather briefly describes himself as 'Han Solo, captain of the Millennium Falcon'. His duel with Greedo occurs after we get to known him as a person: how he talks, how he carries himself. Luke Skywalker also, apart from a music cue, is not presented as anything special. He just looks to the horizon, squints, and then responds to his name in a slightly whiny voice...which is completely indicative of who he is in the beginning.
Characterization used to be anchored to the story being told.
Nowadays you're lucky if we get to know anything about the people concerned. A backstory is not a personality. Brooding is not a personality. A job is not a personality. Having a family, having a dead family member, having a goofy turn of phrase is not a personality.
Personality, like real life, is opposites in contention. Every one of us who lives and breathes has things they want to do, things they ought to do, things they must do, things they want to do they ought'n to do...etc. When you describe a person you don't know you might describe what they act like.
When you describe a person you do know, you describe what they think.
And we're to know what people are like we need to know what they're thinking. If they are thinking, they need to be as chaotic in their thoughts as we or it doesn't feel quite real. A children's character is always happy because nothing troubles them. A character in a broad comedy seems to only have exaggerated emotions because that way they are constantly making bold and funny gestures: oftentimes their motives boiled down to greed, lust, envy...anything that prompts them to crazy schemes to get what they want.
A real character is one you can picture them simply...thinking. They are a mind behind the shell. If you were to strip them down you would still find the person inside: the working structure of a brain beset by doubts, woven with faith, shaped by experience. A real person second-guesses themselves. A real person wonders.
Tension can add no end of interest to a person if it's allowed. I mention my least favorite characters a lot and often simply to point out how boring and annoying they are so I'll refrain from naming names, but the thing in common with all the characters I dislike is a combination of unearned omnipotence and a complete lack of contradiction.
A character who can achieve everything and doubts nothing is BORING. Flaws give them something to think about. From Avatar to the recent Star Wars films I am continually baffled by the proliferation of people who are dull as paste because they are both incredibly skillful without practice and completely devoid of meaningful self-doubt. For the sake of melodrama these non-characters might brood on their insecurities and complain about how hard their lives would be if they weren't given everything without real effort or sacrifice, but when it comes down to it there's in the easiest of existences. Their cause is just, their ability unquestioned, their victory assured.
We should all be so lucky, but then we'd all be cripplingly dry husks of human beings.
The lifeblood inside of us is contention, dissension, discussion. Our thoughts are at war every day. At this very moment two or more theories are swimming around your head about what to say next, do next, think next and you will choose one, the other, neither or both to act upon. As long as you're awake your mind is working and it works by presenting ideas in tension.
So why not liven up our characters with some of that lovely suspense? Instead of bored actors muttering cliched deliveries, jazz up the proceedings with a little humanity in our supposedly human stories.
With tension a tea party can be just as exciting as anything else because the people are where the real stories take place.