This weekend I downloaded on iTunes and watched the movie Melancholia. I love odd movies and this movie seemed to fit the bill. I opted to purchase the movie outright instead of renting it. I have rented movies from iTunes before only to purchase the movie a couple of days later. I just knew that I would like this movie, so I figured why waste the money, just purchase it now. My sister tells people that the longer, stranger, and boringer the movie is, the more likely it is I will love it. In fact, if there is any way a movie can be made so it is like watching an historical documentary, omg I love it!
Well, OK maybe that’s not entirely true, but I do love a variety of movies.
So, what did I think of Melancholia?
Let’s just say I should have rented it. What went wrong you ask? The visuals were stunning. The storyline was potentially fascinating, giant planet (Melancholia) headed towards earth, supposedly only to do a fly-by and not crash into earth, we promise, pinky-swear, right hand up to God. Insert compelling cast of characters and watch their lives unravel as the clock ticks down to the inevitable outcome and bam you have a hit. Potentially awesome movie. Except it wasn’t.
Why didn’t it live up to the hype? Characters. The creators of this movie took a potential win and threw it into the path of Melancholia by creating a host of characters I simply could not care about. And that is supremely disappointing because I was disposed to love this movie. Instead I found myself praying Melancholia would smash into Earth just so the movie would end.
My brother disagrees with me and thinks it was a great character study about the two sisters. The one who spent the movie as the solid, stable sister holding the whole family together who falls apart at the end versus the crazy sister who pulls it all together at the end. Yeah, that could be interesting if I cared enough about the two sisters to even remember their names for this post.
Which brings me to the point of my post. Creating believable characters that people can care about. I’m not talking about making people love your characters, because let’s face it, there are a lot of pretty unlikeable characters in literature, movies and TV.
When writing characters, however, you have to give your readers something to hold onto to, that ephemeral quality that your readers can identify with that draws them into the story. Generally, this is easy to do with protagonists. For example, Harry Potter, the lonely orphan child in the cupboard under the stairs, treated badly by his Aunt, Uncle and cousin, who longed for a better life with the loving parents he never knew who also happens to be the greatest wizard the world will ever know. Compelling right? I suppose a lesser author could have mucked that up, but thankfully, on the 7th day, God created JK Rowling.
But just as important as creating great protagonists, an author must create a believable, complex antagonist that we can love to hate. Let’s face it. Where would Harry be without he-who-must-not-be-named aka Voldemort.
Let me give you two examples of compelling antagonists that I think have that “it” factor that can help draw the reader in and add a level of depth to your story.
Voldemort – Harry Potter Books
Voldemort is the quintessential evil bad guy, but not just because he did evil things. Yes, he did do bad things. He killed Harry’s parents and tried to destroy the wizarding world all the while plotting Harry’s demise. Evil, evil man, yes.
But what makes Voldemort a great antagonist is his humanity. All of the things we can identify with in Harry also exist in Voldemort. Like Harry, he was an orphan child, alone in the world, hoping for a better future. Like Harry, he finds out that he is special because he can do magic. Like Harry, he can speak to snakes. Like Harry, he was the greatest wizard of his day. Harry even identifies with Voldemort on a certain level and struggles with his own identity trying to figure out how he could have so much in common with his nemesis. He struggles to grasp how they can have such similarities and yet be so different. What makes Harry good versus what makes Voldemort evil? Who is to say Harry won’t end up going down the same path?
Voldemort is great not because he helps Harry overcome evil in the world, but because he helps Harry overcome the evil inside himself.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter – Silence of the Lambs
Do I really need to say anything about him? Creepy, genius, eats his victims, strange moral center, a truly scary person. Why do we like him so much? Even now, just thinking about him, my skin is crawling.
Dr. Lecter is intelligent and refined. He speaks calmly and slowly, looking you directly in the eye. He studied psychiatry and thus knows human behavior and how to manipulate people. He knows what he does and what he says repulses and frightens you, but his behavior draws you in and disarms you nonetheless. He treats you with respect, so you are inclined to offer the same respect to him. And then he calmly and brutally kills you and eats your liver with a side of fava beans a nice chianti.
This makes him one of the scariest characters in literature and the movies. But what really makes him a great antagonist is that he can be all these things and show deference and respect to Clarrise Starling. He challenges her to think about the evidence in a major unsolved string of murders and helps her catch the killer. All the while, he is able to compel her to share very intimate details of her psyche. Nonetheless, when he escapes custody, Clarrise is certain he will not come after her because, as she says, “he would consider that rude.” And he confirms this by telling her he does not “plan to pay her a visit because the world is more interesting with her in it.”
So the scariest person you have ever met, who has managed to get inside your head and learn what makes you tick, and has let you know what he is capable of doing to you is walking the streets free as a can be but says he respects you enough to leave you alone. I would never sleep again. In fact, after writing this, I might not sleep tonight.
It is vitally important to make sure your readers or viewers care about your characters. The characters are why we read the story, or see the movie. The characters tell the story. The characters help us care about your story. It is through the eyes of your characters that we sometimes find out something about our own lives. They don’t always have to be likable, but I think they always need to be great.