Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Mary Sue Pt 3: Skyline and District 9

Point Two on the Mary Sue list is as follows: 2. She is a character so poorly constructed that her inadvertent negative character traits overshadow her intentional positive ones.  Her intentional negative traits, which in a good character would balance out the intentional positives are not credible and thus do not register with the reader.

This is where things stop being easy, and also, IMHO, stop being something I can back up with my own actions, as I am unpublished and thus cannot prove that I know what I’m doing. However, I firmly believe what I am about to explain is true. This is another of CW’s Magical Writing Theories (Consume with Grain of Salt), so get comfy.

We’re comparing two movies today, not two books. This might not be the best choice. BUT. We won’t have prose or word choice or pretty, flowery phrases getting in our way. All you have with movies are characters, plot, and how it’s constructed, and it makes it easier (IMHO) to see what someone did or did not do when you’re not slogging through eighteen thousand pages of lurid prose.

What two movies you ask? District 9 and Skyline.

These are also good examples of point one: An extraordinary character without an extraordinary plot. In D-9, you have Wikus, who is, well, not that extraordinary. True, the circumstances of the plot could not occur without him (*cough*beinganidiot*cough*), but any other character could have stepped into his shoes and got things started (and probably done a better job of it). However, extraordinary things happen to him, and he takes them…um, not all that well for the first couple of hours. Which is an important part of the story. When he finally does start handling it right, we are so thrilled it makes the climax not merely good but AWESOME!!!one!1!

In Skyline, you have Jerrod. Who is extraordinary in how the aliens effect him (see the epic Skyline bitch if you want to understand WTF I mean) even though this is never explained and I am still pissed off at this. (Dear fx persons who want to do their own movies: HIRE FUCKING WRITERS TO DO THE WRITING. Sorry. I just…have issues) He also does nothing for the first two hours of the movie, except beg the other characters to do something. The circumstances are extraordinary, but the plot (four idiots sit in an apartment) is not.

But that’s not what we’re talking about today. Today, we’re talking about character traits and construction, and how handling this poorly results in a Mary Sue type character. And it all boils down to the first five minutes we spend with the characters.

The audience begins constructing a character IMMEDIATELY. Can I add more emphasis to that word? The time to begin character development is about six pages before you start your novel. You are already at a disadvantage. If you wait a couple sentences, you’re in trouble. If you wait a couple pages, you’ve blown it. Every word, every phrase, gesture, color choice, everything has to work towards building a character that people like, can root for AND (this is important) who can accomplish your plot without breaking the character.

However, if you don’t focus on character development? Don’t worry. Your audience will do it for you. A Mary Sue character is not the product of a bad writer. She’s the result of one, don’t get me wrong, but the writer does not create her. If the writer were creating her, we probably would not have this problem. In fact, her presence means the writer was sitting down on the job. In the absence of intentional character traits, the audience picks up on the inadvertent traits and uses these to build the character. More often than not, these traits are negative and not something you want to be your character’s foundation. And the first thing a reader sees WILL be the founding character trait, no matter what. If you don’t do it on purpose, your reader will do it for you, and you won’t like the result.

The only way to control how your audience sees your characters is to manipulate the living hell out of both of them from the word go. Think about how this action would strike them. Think about how this event will effect them. What will the coffee cup imply about the character? How will the audience view his tendency to drink? And always, always, always, be aware of how your viewers might see your characters, and do your best to keep the intentional character traits in front of the inadvertent ones.

Let’s look at our examples and see what I mean.

In D-9, we are treated to an opening that appears, well, pretty boring. Little nerdy dude comes in, sits down, babbles about his wife, and introduces himself as a main character. And yet there is something else going on here. When I saw this opening my first response, I kid you not, was This is going to be an awesome movie. And. It. Was.  So much happens in that handful of seconds it is mind blowing, and (because we have good writers) you catch none of it on a conscious level. Subconsciously? That’s a different story. Let’s break it down, shall we?

First of all, you have the visual appearance of Wikus (Something you don’t get with books, but we’ll look at how to get around this some other time). He’s a nerd. He looks like he should be doing your taxes. As you watch him, he’s screwing around with a little microphone and grinning like an idiot. Not the most physically fit human in the box, you know? But probably content because … damn, look at that smile. And his first line is something like “After the last meeting with corporate, my wife was always encouraging me.” It’s less than thirty seconds long, and it’s just set him up perfectly. Here’s what happened:

He’s identified as someone exactly like the audience (nerdy, intelligent, not the most physical person in the universe, and given his surroundings, probably an office or cubical worker) and thus as someone they can identify with.

He’s also identified as someone socially responsible. He has a job. He dresses functional and not flashy. And there’s something sturdy and reassuring about this. He’s dependable. You can trust this guy.

He has a family, and it’s important to him. That first line, my wife is always encouraging me, both introduces the idea of family and ties it indelibly to Wikus’s character, because it’s the first thing we hear him say. Family is important to the movie, and it's established immediately.

He loves, and is loved. His wife, you see, is always encouraging him. You can hear the warmth with which he says it (and again, the fact that this is the first thing we hear him say identifies that he loves his wife) showing that he appreciates her presence and her love in his life. And she obviously loves him, because this unseen woman goes out of her way to encourage him.

He doesn’t have a lot of self confidence. He needs to be constantly encouraged, see? This also reinforces the fact that his wife loves him, that she is willing to constantly encourage someone who has shaky self confidence. It implies in turn that there is something deeper to this skinny little man, something that would make a wife want to be with him when it requires continual effort on her part to keep him motivated.

He is happy. He’s got this grin on his face like he just won the lottery. It doesn’t match up with the concept of shaky self confidence and his need for constant encouragement. It implies that something has happened and he no longer needs this input. It implies that he has just been validated. This could be the best day of this guy’s life.

Finally, we should like him. He is a nerd, just like us, with shaky self-confidence (just like us) a family that loves him, that he loves back, possible depths that are worth knowing about, and is quite possibly having the best day of his life. We want to know more about this guy.

All this with one static scene at the start of an unbelievably complex movie.

Now, let’s look at the opening to Skyline. Actually, it has two. Let’s break them both down.

In Opening One, massive lights shine through the blinds of an apartment that has just gone through a massive party. A girl gets out of bed to vomit. Jerrod, our as-yet unnamed main character, gets out of bed and follows the lights into the living room, where another girl is screaming. He looks into the lights and gets crusty brown stuff over his eyes. End scene.

Second opening, Jerrod and vomit-girl, now revealed as his girlfriend, are on a plane, putting together a scrapbook of pictures of Jerrod and some other dude. We watch Jerrod draw, and get to see all of Jerrod’s tattoos.

Opening A is a much more interesting opening than D-9 on the surface. It’s bigger, it’s louder and (seemingly) stuff happens. But what does it tell us about Jerrod?

There’s empty cups and beer containers everywhere. This implies that there was a party and that Jerrod was a participant. It implies that Jerrod drank until he no longer cared to clean up his mess. Partying is universally viewed as a socially irresponsible activity. This implies that Jerrod himself is socially irresponsible. I do not think this is something the writer’s intended. Instead, this is an inadvertent character trait we pick up on because no purposeful character trait has been introduced.

Random girl gets up to vomit: Again, socially irresponsible behavior. At this point, we do not know that Girlfriend is pregnant. Not knowing this, we can only assume that this woman drank so much alcohol that she must vomit while she was passed out. This is not true in the movie’s context. She’s pregnant. She didn’t drink (alcohol) and at one point she asks another character to put out a cigarette so her baby won’t be at risk. We do not know any of this. All we see are the remnants of a party and a girl vomiting, and draw the most obvious conclusion. For the rest of the movie, our subconscious sees Girlfriend as the woman who drank until she puked. Knowing she was pregnant does not help because we now see her as the woman who drank until she puked while she was pregnant with a baby. Her pregnancy is an important plot point, so having her character be thus portrayed in the opening thirty seconds damages the rest of the movie.

Jerrod hears screaming, he gets up and finds another Random girl: Heroics! He’s running to the rescue of the damsel in distress! Here is our first positive character trait. He’s socially irresponsible, but a hero!

He looks into the light and becomes hypnotized. Random brown crusty things appear around his eyes: …and now he’s a victim. He stands there passively while another girl screams and this strange light does things to him, and he puts up no resistance at all.

Equally interesting is what is not mentioned. Family is also an important theme in Skyline. Girlfriend's pregnancy motivates Jerrod to (simi) heroics. And yet this is not mentioned in either opening. Family does not it the audience as that important. I mention it only because the movie vitally NEEDED it, and it was not there.

So to sum up what opening A does with Jerrod’s character: He’s a socially irresponsible partyer with heroic tendancies, but an inability to follow through in the face of danger, and he is more likely to become a victim than he is to be the hero. This impression holds through the whole movie.

But how about opening B, the true start of the movie? Well, at this point it only builds on the irresponsible partyer image. We see Jerrod be snuggly with his girlfriend, implying that there is sexual fusion here, but because he’s socially irresponsible we never quite trust that it’s love. He shows artistic talent as he makes a scrapbook of himself and Some Dude, but this isn’t a positive because in western culture, artists and creatives are socially irresponsible. And he has a very…strange…tattoo. A skull with ribbons and butterflies coming out of it. Implying a tough yet gentle self image that doesn’t mesh with the party-man we were introduced to. Because it doesn’t mesh, we assume that it’s a pose.

Both openings add up to a socially irresponsible artist who desperately wants to be a hero, but who is far more likely to wind up as a victim someone else needs to rescue.

However, I don’t think the writers intended for Jerrod to be a socially irresponsible victim. I think they wanted him to be a gentle, protective hero in a set of bad circumstances. I think part of the problem is, they wrote Opening A without considering what it would do to Jerrod’s character, and assumed that the audience would not begin developing Jerrod as a person until Opening B. If you remove opening A and start with Opening B, you get the following:

An artistic man with a strong build being snuggly with his girlfriend in public (implying romance, if not love) who has a tattoo of a skull and butterflies, implying a strong-but-gentle self-image.

By not thinking about what the circumstances of Opening A would do to their character, the writers of Skyline damaged the entire movie, using less than thirty seconds of film the movie doesn’t even need.

District 9 builds on its opening beautifully. The next sequence of scenes introduces us to the idea of the aliens, Prawn, to the reality that the Prawn are socially discriminated against, AND that Something Very Bad Happens to that happy, nerdy man we liked in the opening. This ups the tension. We like him. We don’t want bad things to happen to him. Then as the movie progresses, Wikus proves that he hates the Prawn as much as everybody else. His character takes hit after hit and we become strongly disappointed in this man. We thought he was better than this. By the time we get to the pinnacle of his depravity (he giggles while he roasts their infants alive, I shit you not) we WANT something bad to happen to him, and we’re also desperate for something, anything we can latch onto as a positive character. We’re also completely on the Prawn’s side.

This is when we’re introduced to Christopher Johnson, intelligent Prawn and loving father. And we are so primed for him to exist that even though he’s a scary ugly alien bug, we love him like he’s a teddy bear and want nothing but good for him. And the ONLY reason this works is we feel so disturbed by Wikus’s behavior…which is only disturbing because we liked him so much in that first thirty seconds. And for the rest of the movie, the writers use Wikus’s character, our disappointment in him, his redemption through suffering, his victories and his continual failure to overcome his racism (which disappoints us further) to up the tension and our interest in the movie. When he FINALLY makes the right choice, we are so wound up that it takes everything in us not to stand up and cheer. Finally, finally this nerdy little man has overcome his negative character traits and proven himself worthy of the instant love we felt for him in that first thirty seconds of film. When we get to his bittersweet ending, we are bawling.

And none of this movie would work as well as it does if those first thirty seconds weren’t there. It is intensely well constructed to hinge on our reaction to the opening. Everything in it is intentional. Nothing is left for us to work out on our own.

Skyline? Not at all the same.

The next twenty minutes are wasted on Jerrod’ friend’s party. NOTHING of substance occurs, character wise, save for showcasing that these characters are scum. They drink, keep secrets, cheat on their loved ones in the bathroom in front of witnesses, violate the privacy of other people, and break my suspension of disbelief so much … it’s almost worth sitting through the whole movie again just to laugh. You could cut the entire first twenty minutes out and still have a whole, functioning story about four people who sit in an apartment in the middle of an alien invasion and do NOTHING, except remark about how Jerrod is growing alien crusties on different parts of his body (which is a passive victim stance, given that he does NOTHING to try to stop it).

And the one obvious thing is, the writers clearly never thought about developing any of these characters after about fifteen minutes in. They left all that stuff outside in the rain and focused on the plot … which allowed us, the audience, to pick up on all the inadvertent things they left in, like the socially irresponsible partying, Girlfriend’s SHEER STUPIDITY of staying in a nuclear fallout zone when she is pregnant, and the monumental climax scene where our two main characters, Girlfriend and Jerrod, epically sit down and give up. And the character we construct from these things? Marty Stu, Mary’s male counterpart. There’s no reason for us to like him, no reason for him to be the main character, except that he is a very very (very very very) obvious wish-fulfillment character for the writers (who were both special effects artists). This is the guy they want to be, and they are so convinced that he’s good, they put no effort at all into ensuring that the audience receives him as they intended.

Now, sometimes a writer can luck onto a character whose inadvertent traits are positive. It’s rare, but I believe it can happen. It’s like depending on Russian roulette when five chambers are loaded instead of one, so you might not want to do it. If you pay attention, employ scenes intended to show who your main character is, and work to keep your intentional character traits in front of your inadvertent ones, you are far more likely to avoid a Mary Sue than you are if you leave it to chance.

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