The Green Lantern Movie: How *Not* to Write Characters
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.
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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.
Yes, without motivations, everyone seemed to be doing what was convenient to the plot. And convenient means too easy. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Excellent points about characters. In WWBC, we do detailed profiles of each character of any importance before starting to write text.
Good idea! But keep in mind that with the comic books, the writers had plenty of background for most of the characters. The real problem is that they didn’t show – or even tell – that rich backdrop for any of them. So the lesson there is that all our fantastic prep work won’t mean anything unless it’s reflected on the page in some way. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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.
Eh, the movie was what it was: fluffy eye candy while I munched on popcorn. LOL! So it wasn’t that I didn’t like it so much as I was disappointed that they didn’t do all they could with it. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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.
I’ve heard of that workshop, but I didn’t know she had a book too. I’ll have to check it out. 🙂 Thanks for letting me know!
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.
Yes, it is sad for Ryan because I think he’s a good actor, but he wasn’t given enough to work with here. In all fairness to him, I think he did great with what he had. If it wasn’t for him, the movie probably would have landed hard in the “camp” or parody side of things. Thanks for the comment!
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. 🙂
Perfect! 🙂 Happy to help. Thanks for the comment!
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:)
Yes, plot is not (or should not) just be a string of events. A good plot should be a tight cause and effect that creates a sense of inevitability. The best plot combines that sense of inevitability with the element of surprise – things happen just the way they had to because of everything that came before, yet not how the audience predicted (cheating by holding back essential information doesn’t count 🙂 ).
As far as your question, I’m going to stick to comic-book adaptations or we’ll be here all night. 🙂 Many people hold up the first Iron Man or the latest Batman reboot as “comic book movies done right,” but my favorite is the 1989 Batman film. That plot wasn’t too convoluted (another peril of this genre, think of many of the James Bond movies), had decent character development, and most importantly to me, the setting/mood/cinematography/music all worked together to create something outstanding. I think that movie did the best to capture the Gothic feel of the Batman comic book without directly imitating a comic book style. In more recent movies, I enjoyed the latest X-Men: First Class for its character development. Any story that gets you to sympathize with the series’ bad guy (Magneto) at the end has done a phenomenal job at character development. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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,
Yes, I definitely enjoyed the Iron Man movies too. I just wanted to give a non-obvious answer. 🙂 The first Batman was with Michael Keaton. Most people weren’t crazy about him in the role, but he wasn’t horrible. 🙂
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.
LOL! Yes, look at how I suffer for the benefit of my readers. *snort* Thanks for the comment! 🙂
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. 😀
You’re right about that. 🙂 The external conflict was problematic as well, but I touched on most of that in Part One. Thanks for the comment!
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!
Great example! Yes, in books, too much physical description – especially of their perfection – makes it seem like that’s all they’ve got going for them. I’ve seen way too many romances fall into this trap. By the end of the book, we’re still not convinced the couple is right for each other because it seems like their attraction is all superficial and that doesn’t last. Thanks for the comment!
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.
Yay for checklists. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Excellent post on characterization! Hat tip to ya, Jami! Love the lessons learned.
*teacher-me beams* Thanks for the comment! 🙂
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.
LOL! Yes, it is faster, isn’t it? Thanks for the comment!
I love that you mentioned loving the movie in a “MST3K” way. That is often how I salvage an unfortunate movie experience. 🙂
LOL! Yes, I can’t believe you’re the first one to catch that. That’s one reason I don’t mind bad movies, as I know I’ll get enjoyment out of them some way or another. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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.
LOL! Yep, I won’t disagree with you there. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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. 😀
Great point! Complex characters often help us with plotting because all those motivations and goals can bring in subplots and complications for the protagonist. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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.
“Internal conflict/motivation should always be the driving force”
Exactly. When the external conflict/plot drives the story without the balancing internal conflict, the characters can feel passive to the audience, like the characters are just going along with the flow. Thanks for the comment! 🙂
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.
LOL! Very true! And I thought the same thing. For a superhero who needed a good imagination, his was a bit lacking. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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
This didn’t even have car chases. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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!
Yes, there is that, and that’s a good thing too. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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!
I used to think that I wrote plot-driven/character-focused stories. But the more a learn about the craft and making plots work, the more I realize it all comes down to the characters. Ooo, I think I might have an idea for another blog post. Thanks! 🙂
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.
Believe it or not, I agree with you. 🙂 Comic book or not, we want – and should expect – well-written movies. I don’t want to make excuses for a movie’s plot or characters simply because of its source material, whether that be book, comic book, video game, etc.
However, those in Hollywood too often don’t respect the source material or the audiences enough to care about making good movies. My quote you’re referring to (… it’d be easy to say that it was a comic book movie and therefore lived up to expectations…) is pointing out that double-standard of Hollywood. If I meant to imply that –I– thought comic book movies should have different (i.e., lower) expectations, I would have said so. 🙂 Instead, I believe the opposite, that this movie deserved better than what the writers gave it.
So I wasn’t picking on this movie because of its source material. I was picking on it because of all the flaws I pointed out. And I know you’re not a regular reader here, or else you’d have known I’m a genre-girl with mega-geek cred. 🙂 And I would much rather have seen the movie reach its potential and not be held back by writers who thought they didn’t need to try harder. Thanks for the comment!
Hi Jami, thanks for the reply.
Fair enough, can’t argue with that. I suspect it’s a knee jerk reaction on my part, as I often wince when ‘comic book’ is used as a criticism of a film.
I’ll try and drop by more often!
No worries, I completely understand. Thanks for stopping by again, we genre fans need to stick together! 🙂
[…] 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. […]
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 »
Great point! Yes, you’re right about how Hal’s character arc stalled and turned reactive when he didn’t have anything to do. And it did make him look weak. Thank you so much for adding your spot-on analysis!