Monday, November 14, 2011

Caring About Characters.

First -- Happy Birthday, Jason. Hard to believe you've hit the Big Four Oh. 

Next, I'm a guest blogger at Just Romantic Suspense today, and there's a giveaway. Pop on over and leave a comment. 

Once a week, Hubster and I watch a Netflix movie. Since we've never been big moviegoers, we have a lot of "new to us" movies to pick from. And we just put whatever strikes our fancy in the queue, because trying to find something we know we'll both like would make choosing a movie a challenge. Our only "rule" is that we each promise to give the movie 15 minutes. So, if I pick a romantic comedy, or he picks a slapstick, we're not obligated to sit through the other person's movie. Often, rather than leave the room, we'll have laptops out and divide our attention between the movie and solitaire.

Recently, we've watched a series of train movies. We saw the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, which we liked, so I ordered Unstoppable. When I tweeted the latter as our Netflix Nite selection, someone suggested Runaway Train a 1985 movie, so that went into the queue.

Unstoppable was pretty much the same story as Runaway Train. Both had the same basic conflict. A train was out of control and if it wasn't stopped, bad stuff would happen. The people responsible were of two sorts—those who had reasonable solutions, and those who were more concerned with saving face for the company.

Unstoppable was a compelling movie. Hubster left his laptop on the coffee table. Runaway Train should have been a compelling movie, but solitaire got more attention than the screen. Why? Runaway Train got decent reviews when it came out, but I wouldn't have given one, and it had nothing to do with the performances of the actors.

I can't speak for Hubster, but for me it was a simple matter of characters. The movie opened in a prison, and we watched two convicts escape. We saw the warden, a real bully. The prisoners were genuine bad guys—no redeeming qualities that we could see. They were in prison because they belonged there. These guys weren't cardboard, but for me, there was no reason to want them to succeed.

So, here are two totally unlikeable characters on an out of control train. If it crashes, they'll die. So what? Yes, the train needed to be stopped before it harmed innocents who lived along the route, but we never saw them, never had any reason to care about any of them as individuals. Unlikeable characters with redeeming character traits will give a viewer, or reader, a reason to care. Without those qualities, there's nothing to pull the reader in. In a movie, if nothing else, you've got the action on the screen to give you something to focus on.

The only character who evoked any sympathy was a young woman who worked for the railroad on the train. I suppose there was supposed to be some character growth for the convicts growth as they had to work with her, because she understood how things on the train worked. However, it was too little, too late for me.

As action-adventure, perhaps the film had some redeeming qualities. But, as readers of my blog know, I'm all about characters, and while I don't want them perfect, they have to have something that makes me care about them. When you're writing, make sure the characters are as important as the action and the plot. Because if nobody likes the characters, it won't matter what predicaments you put them in.

Tomorrow, my guest is author Randy Rawls, who's going to tell us why he keeps writing, even though he's never made the best-seller list.

Like this post? Please share by clicking one of the links below.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Haven't seen the film, but after your review it sounds unlikely to interest me. I'm not into action flicks. I like clever dialog and character development.

Ray said...

I like your comments on Runaway Train. I for one do not like prison movies and probably would have turned off the movie before the prison break. I don't mind characters with no redeeming qualities as long as they are up against characters who do.


Anonymous said...

When you're writing, make sure the characters are as important as the action and the plot.

Well said. I think that's why the Predator is one of my favourite movie characters. He's portrayed as the villain, but he has a code he follows, such as hunting those who only pose a challenge, giving his challenger a chance by removing all of his fancy shmancy hunting equipment to fight one on one, etc.

Excellent post.

Terry Odell said...

Hubster likes lots of action, but I don't think this one worked for him, either...although he might not have understood why.

Ray, you would have stopped at about one minute in, as the opening was all about the prison (and quite unrealistic, IMHO, with prisoners able to start fires, etc.) The problem for me was that there weren't ANY likeable characters with that one exception I mentioned, but she had no real motivation other than survival, and little depth of character, either.

Maggie - I've blogged about making readers like 'unlikeable' characters, and there's nothing wrong with a nasty villian .. but for the life of me, I couldn't have pointed to a "hero" in this movie.

Marian Lanouette said...

I liked Pelham 123 but one train movie was enough for me. I also hate prison movies--I don't understand why sympathy is evoked for criminals or find them entertaining.

Terry Odell said...

Marian - I liked Unstoppable--but that's because the characters had depth, and conflicts were truly established for all of them. As for prison movies--there's always the 'wrongly imprisoned' character who would evoke my sympathy. There are lots of ways to create reader empathy--but Runaway Train didn't do any of them, IMHO.

Anonymous said...

Good blog, Terry! Writing a novel forever changes the way you look at things like movies and plays and other books, doesn't it? It gives you tools to decide why you like it or why you didn't. It sort of changes your life, actually! And I agree that I probably wouldn't have liked this movie although I did like Unstoppable and the plot sounds sort of similar.

Julie Robinson said...

I like action films, but more so with witty dialogue---which is why The Long Kiss Goodnight is my favorite movie. My DH and I have watched it so many times, we quote it back and forth sometimes. Great way to lighten a mood.

Julie Robinson said...

BTW, we also like to watch RomComs together. He says he enjoys them too.

Terry Odell said...

Hubster will watch romantic comedies, although he'll never add them to the queue. I'll have to check out your recommendation. Thanks.

Maryannwrites said...

Good points, Terry. Characters are the most important element of a story. If there are no people, who cares about the most intricate plot? Too many books and movies rely on action and convoluted plots to hold a reader and don't put enough effort into crafting characters that we can connect to.