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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