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July 7, 2011

The Green Lantern Movie: How *Not* to Write Characters

Hal Jordan with Green Lantern ring

Last time, I used the Green Lantern movie to illustrate how not to plot a story.  This time, we’re going to look at the Green Lantern characters.

As noted before, Green Lantern felt superficial and formulaic.  Sure, it’d be easy to say that it was a comic book movie and therefore lived up to expectations, but other comic book adaptations have avoided that backward compliment.  Analyzing the movie’s many flaws might help us avoid some of the same problems.

We already looked at how lessons from the movie could help us avoid writing formulaic plots.  Now let’s see if we can learn how to avoid writing superficial characters.

Lessons from the Characters of the Green Lantern Movie:

  • Secondary Characters: Every character should have strengths and flaws.  If a character’s only purpose is to provide a love interest, she’s a cardboard cutout.  Real characters should have more reasons to exist than giving the hero an audience for showing off (e.g., the geek best friend).  A character without a purpose has no motivations, so their actions will seem like contrivances for the plot’s sake.
  • Lesson: All main characters need an arc.
  • Contrast: To have an arc, there has to be contrast.  Point B has to be different from Point A.  But Hal Jordan started the story with a cool job (test pilot) and potential with the girl, and he ended up with a cool job (superhero) and potential with the girl.  Together with a lack of internal conflict, the movie didn’t have any high highs or low lows.  Too much didn’t change over the course of the movie.
  • Lesson: Make arcs strong enough to create contrast.
  • Surprises: Character actions need to make sense based on who they are and what they want, but at the same time, we don’t want them to be too predictable.  Predictable characters make a story feel formulaic.  Complex characters will feel more than one emotion at a time, so they can react in self-competing and unpredictable ways.
  • Lesson: Make characters complex enough to surprise the audience.
  • Out-of-Character Issues:  At the end of Green Lantern, one of the good guys turns bad.  Why?  No idea.  The threat was gone, and he’d just congratulated the hero on a job well done.  Was he jealous of the hero?  Did he feel irrelvant now that bad guy was gone?  No idea.  Characters shouldn’t go against all their characterization just because the plot says they’re supposed to.
  • Lesson:  When characters need to change, give them a reason.
  • Internal Conflict:  After Hal Jordan proves he has what it takes by saving the girl, does he have a change of heart about quitting?  No, he remains dubious until the love interest tells him the same thing he already knows.  Sure, people often act against logic in real life, but this wasn’t acting against logic so much as stringing along the pathetic excuse for an internal arc because the script had nothing else to fall back on for internal conflict.
  • Lesson:  Make characters complex enough to create internal conflict.
  • Motivation:  Every character in Green Lantern lacked sufficient motivation for their actions.  Every action seemed to be driven by the plot rather than by the character.  Why did the love interest come by Hal’s apartment?  Because the plot needed her to.  Coincidences can be plot-related, like we talked about last time, or they can be character-related when motivations for actions are missing.  Either way, it reeks of formulaic writing.
  • Lesson: Characters must have motivations for their actions.
  • Sacrifice:  In addition to the plot issues, the stakes in Green Lantern felt low because we never got the sense that anything in Hal’s life was at risk.  He wasn’t risking anything during his arc, not his family, his job, his love life, or his friendships.  The only thing ever holding him back was him.  He eventually decides to sacrifice his own life, but as this happens without any sense of a black moment, the choice carries no tension.
  • Lesson:  Make characters have to (or think they have to) sacrifice what matters to them.

In short, much of Green Lantern didn’t make sense.  Maybe some of the issues were addressed in the comic books, which I haven’t read.  And I could forgive some comic-book-induced plot holes, but there’s no excuse for lack of motivation for characters.  And most of these character issues come down to those missing motivations.

Character motivations are essential for good storytelling.  Motivations create the cause and effect that makes a plot hang together.  ABC happens and that makes character do DEF because of XYZ motivation.  Their action then makes GHI happen.  Etc., etc.  No motivation means no cause and effect.  No cause and effect means nonsensical plot.

In Green Lantern, the lack of character motivations and uniqueness (surprises, complications, black moments) created a movie that was superficial and formulaic to the extreme.  And while I enjoyed the movie in a let’s-make-fun-of-it MST3K way, we need to aim higher.

If you saw Green Lantern, what did you think of the characters?  What makes characters feel superficial to you?  Did I miss anything on my list?  Do you agree with my take on the importance of motivation to the plot?  What’s the most artificial character (in a non-parody story) you’ve seen?

Also, my blogiversary contest ends at midnight EDT this Sunday, July 10, 2011, so this is your last chance to sign up for an opportunity to “win” me.

Photo Credit: Collider.com

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63 Comments on "The Green Lantern Movie: How *Not* to Write Characters"

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Paul Anthony Shortt

You’ve hit it on the head, Jami. None of the characters had any motivation for their actions, and we never felt like any of them were in any real danger.

To be honest, the best thing about the film was Mark Strong’s performance, but he’s an amazing actor, who had not much to work with.

David N. Walker

Excellent points about characters. In WWBC, we do detailed profiles of each character of any importance before starting to write text.

Murphy

Hi Jami!

I’m, uh, guessing you didn’t like the movie much. LOL! No, I didn’t see the movie and after your posts? I don’t intend to. 😉 Great insight about motivations and stacking up the stakes…gee, without em, you wind up with a nothing but do-do.

Murphy

Susan Sipal

Jami, you touch on so many important aspects of characterization with great examples. Your analysis reminds me a lot of an extremely valuable workshop I took, and then book I read, early in my writing. Have you heard of Debra Dixon’s GMC – Goal, Motivation, and Conflict? When she presents it, it’s standing room only. And the book has been out for years. Uses the Wizard of Oz for the backbone of examples.

Tiffany A White

I haven’t seen the Green Lantern yet, but I have had a bad feeling about this movie from the get-go. I LOVE Ryan Reynolds, but never once felt the urge to rush out and see him play a super hero. Now, I’m even less interested….I’ll wait for it to be on the cable channels. Sorry, Ryan.

Melinda Collins

Hi Jami!
I LOVE these two posts you’ve done about the movie. It’s so disappointing that the production companies spend all this money to hype everyone up, then let us down with poor plots and characters.
You not only saved me some $$, but give me a ‘check list’ to revert back to during revisions. 🙂

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Another fabulous teaching post!
I totally agree with your take on the importance of motivation to plot, and want to see Green Lantern, even though the movie is obviously an example of what not to do, so that I can follow along with the problems addressed.
I’ll wait for DVD;)
Also, I have a question: In your opinion, what movie, new or old, do you feel tackles these issues in the right way? Either a movie with great plot, or great characters, or both? Just curious:)
Tamara

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Very interesting!
I don’t remember Batman too clearly. I know I saw it back in 89, but for the life of me I can’t even recall who played him, Val Kilmer? I’ll have to look it up.
I definitely loved Iron Man, thought they did a great job with character growth and plot in that movie. I also loved Iron Man 2, but I’m a shameless Robert Downey Jr. fan:)
Another great one for me was Avatar. Loved the characters, their growth, the plot (even though it’s been done a zillion times before) loved the computer graphic creatures and cinematography, LOVED Sam Worthington…I just thought it was top notch story telling.
A few months ago I rented a movie called Elvis and Annabelle. Not sci-fi, not action/adventure, but straight romance. It was a small budget Indie flick and I thought the writer did a great job with the character arcs and plot there as well.
Thank you so much for answering my question. Like I said, just curious!
Have a fantastic evening, and a productive weekend,
Tamara

Gene Lempp

Having worked in a comic store at one time I can tell you that most of the fans of various comic book characters are die hard types. This is not uncommon, especially among the superhero & sci-fi fans. I think that the filmmakers, rather than making a great movie, take advantage of this aspect and target their marketing towards hyping up the fan base to come dump a bags of cash on their front porch.

This, by the way, is why I never go to see movies based on comic books. I have seen a few once they are free but most have the same holes that you pointed out for Green Lantern.

Great deconstruction and points Jami. Thanks for suffering through it so we could aim for better things for our audiences.

Irene Vernardis
Irene Vernardis

I like Ryan Reynolds too in some movies, not all though.

I liked him a lot as a character in Blade: Trinity. He had a good role there, with a dynamic character, but also with funny traits and behavior.

From the description above, it doesn’t sound promising.

You mentioned internal conflict, but from the descriptions it doesn’t seem that the characters had external conflicts either.

Great points Jami on the characters’ aspects. 😀

Stacy Green

I haven’t seen the movie (and won’t, lol), but I can tell you what makes characters superficial to me is when a writer focuses on their looks and exterior traits. When all they’re there for is to be a visual piece or give the MC a soundboard. I like characters with spunk, with issues of their own. I don’t like to read about perfect looking women all the time. And if it’s a major or secondary character, they need to end the book better than they started. Whatever experiences they have in the book needs to give them growth.

As for Ryan Reynolds, he’s hit and miss for me. He’s had some good comedic roles, and I loved him in in Definitely, Maybe. Showed a different side of him.

Great job on the character points!

Kerry Meacham
Kerry Meacham

Another great post Jami. I’m adding this lesson to my “things to check” when character building, just like I did the first one for plotting.

J. A. Paul

Excellent post on characterization! Hat tip to ya, Jami! Love the lessons learned.

Catie Rhodes

Very good characterization lessons. Sometimes analyzing a movie helps just as much as analyzing a book, and it’s faster. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

Amber

I love that you mentioned loving the movie in a “MST3K” way. That is often how I salvage an unfortunate movie experience. 🙂

Julie Musil

Holy cow, Jami, you nailed it! I was forced to sit through this movie yesterday. I have a husband and three sons, so chick flicks don’t appear on the family movie list.

Anyway, I thought the whole thing was silly. I loved some of the Spiderman movies and Batman begins. Those were more than just comic book movies. But this one, yikes, with the aliens and cheesy dialogue, this one was plain bad. The only positive experience was staring at Ryan Reynolds for 2 hours.

Sonia G Medeiros

Character is something else I went back to the plotting with on my MIP. The MCs were strong but the supporting characters were a little weak. The female protag’s sister was formerly pretty supportive, maybe even a little awestruck. I realized that maybe, she just acted supportive…inside she considered her elder sister beneath her and resented the other’s rise. She might just be motivated to betrayal at some point (which the protag wouldn’t see coming because the protag’s so good at denial). Another character will become an unexpected antagonist as well…and she needed hints of darkness all along. I enjoyed fleshing out these characters more and making them matter more. I hope it’ll show in the final draft. 😀

Cherie

It was that bad, huh. Glad I didn’t spend $$ to see it.

Even though I have not seen the movie, your list is an excellent reminder of how to create multidimensional characters. There’s nothing worse than a character we can’t root for, or can’t care about because there’s no reason to. Also, when characters do things for the convenience of the plot, it just doesn’t make sense to the reader/moviegoer. Internal conflict/motivation should always be the driving force, not because the director wanted a convenient villain for the protagonist.

Maryanne Fantalis

When the best friend character said (and I paraphrase) “Really? Infinite possibilities and all you could come up with was a car?” I almost said, out loud in the dark, “Exactly!” In that sense, the BFF character did his job: speak and react for the audience.

As Green Lantern kept coming up with ever bigger guns, my daughter (12) whispered to me, “He’s such an American boy.”

You got THAT right, sweetie.

Donna Newton

I haven’t seen this movie yet, but like some comic book adaptions, they seem to be made just for the action. Unfortunately, I would have watched this as nothing more than good guy chases bad guy, a few good car chases, and the old favorite of ‘blowing s*%$ up. If anything else came of the story, then it would have been a pleasant surprise. I totally agree with you on all the points you raised. Unfortunately, Hollywood can’t see the need for a good script through the $$$. Great post, Jami xx

Carolina Valdez Miller

A story is all about characterization for me, and when that’s lacking, it tends to fall pretty flat. At least in a movie like Green Lantern you have something pretty to look at…ha!

Kyla

I agree 100% about character motivation. It’s something I spent a large amount of time on while plotting my novel, because I know a story just doesn’t work without proper reasoning on the how’s and why’s of it all. I call it the logistics of the story, but it’s virtually the same thing.

I haven’t seen Green Lantern, but I have seen movies like this MANY times before. I don’t think plot should ever drive the characters, even though I am a plot-lover. Characters rarely matter to me as deeply as a good story, but I do know that characters are an element that creates a good story. I don’t agree with people who say that you should change the plot of your story to fit your characters, however. The choice is simple: change the plot to fit the character, or change the character (and thus their motivations) to fit the plot. Either way, make everything fit together. That’s the secret of a truly good story, as far as I’m concerned. It simply fits perfectly together, every piece, all leading you to the final, incredibly exciting moments of the movie or novel.

I’m still in love with the fact that you took a negative (a flop) and turned it into a positive (things not to do when we’re writing)! Thanks for the great article, and have a great day!

Paul Harrison-Davies
Paul Harrison-Davies

An insightful article that manages to aggravate due to using ‘comic book’ as a criticism. It might be useful to realise that many comics are as well written, or even better, than some movies, just as some movies are as well, or better, written than some comics. Two dimensional characters, bad writing, etc have long been a flaw in movies, it’s nothing to do with comics, or being based on them, just bad writing.
Basically, using a comic book as an example of bad writing is insulting to an entire medium and it’s creators, please try not to do it.

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[…] My analysis of Green Lantern pointed out how Hal Jordan didn’t have enough of a character arc.  Plot-driven movies must have enough character development to show how things change for them.  Similarly, character-driven stories must have enough plot to give the characters a reason to change. […]

Michelle
I liked the movie, but that’s because I’m a rather unashamed hardcore Green Lantern fan that had a spaz attack when I saw the Sinestro Corps logo on the giant tumbler of Doom (TM) that created the yellow ring. Anyway. I think a lot of the problem with this came from the writers perhaps assuming that us hardcore fans knew exactly who Hal was, so they could create a couple of shortcuts in hopes that we’d fill in the blanks with our assumptions of who we thought Hal was already? There was a very big ‘blank spot’ in his character arc when he came back from Oa the first time in shame. He had no more goals and thus his character arc completely stalled. There was nothing for him to do, and he was being a reactive character–responding to random stuff that happened to him and not doing much else. I completely agree with what everyone says about character motivation here. I wasn’t sure what Hal wanted here. I knew what he “didn’t” want, but he never really had a ‘thing’ to shoot for in the distance. Already knowing Hal as a character, I knew what was going to happen and of course, the movie wasn’t over yet (obviously), so I just sat and waited until something happened. This made Hal seem like a weak character. I know they were trying to portray his fear and insecurity, but I personally would have had him take this and try his best… Read more »
Jeff Palmer
Jeff Palmer
First of all thank you so much for your insightful analysis of the film. I have been reading the Green Lantern comic books for many years and while I did not hate the film I did come away with a definite ‘meh’ feeling which was most disappointing. Personally I found Hal Jordon tricky to sympathize with as a character, even in the comic books. His dominating personal qualities are that of a cocky and fearless (t0 the point of being arrogant) test pilot/intergalactic space cop. There is really not a lot there to relate to for the average person. As you pointed out Hal had it far too easy. I think the comic book writers recognized this as a problem. Part of the way they solved the issue was by introducing genuine obstacles and conflicts for the character over come. Hal had to sacrifice on a very deep level to overcome these obstacles which served to make him much more interesting, much easier to relate to and much more likable. For instance in the comics it was not a Guardian that was possessed by Parralax but Hal himself, and then only after years of being the untarnished good guy. Hal had to sacrifice his own life (he got better later but still…) to redeem himself. The movie seemed to lift some of the major beats of this story but warped it in such a way that it had no dramatic effect on Hal’s character whatsoever. To me they looked at… Read more »
Ron Leighton

Based on this and the related piece about plot, the Green Lantern movie is not, contrary to some critics, useless.

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[…] Gold’s “The Green Lantern Movie: How *Not* to Write Characters”: 913 […]

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[…] back Thursday for Part Two, when I’ll take a look at this movie from the character side of things.  And if you haven’t entered my blogiversary contest yet, check out my post to see if you […]

Greg
Greg

I had zero expectations for this movie. My expectations were met.

At the end of the movie, I had the exact same reaction. He went bad? That sounds like an interesting thing to explore. Too bad the only reason I can think of making him “go bad” is because, well, that’s what he does in the comics.

I assure you, there is AMAZING character development in the comics, particularly with that guy. (I’m being vague on the off-chance someone who hasn’t read the comics might still see the movie. Long-shot, I know… but I hate spoilers)

Still, very insightful write-up. Everything you mention is spot on. You really should give the comic a read through. Try “The Blackest Night” series, if you have any interest at all in that kind of thing.

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[…] recent events triggered this thought.  One, my posts analyzing the plot and characters of the Green Lantern movie went viral this week among the comic book crowd.  I had as much […]

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[…] you remember from my Green Lantern posts about how how not to write plot or characters, I freely admit I’m a genre-loving geek girl with a soft spot for turn-brain-off movies. But […]

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[…] “The Green Lantern Movie: How *Not* to Plot a Story” & “The Green Lantern Movie: How *Not* to Write Characters” from Jami Gold. Wow! Can I just say that this post saved me some $$ AND offered great writing […]

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[…] story, and I’ll be there buying tickets. Even for the cheesy ones like Green Lantern. (Though I’ll promptly make fun of those. […]

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