I have a penchant for horrible science fiction movies. Not decent stuff like The Day the Earth Stood Still. No, terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad monstrosities like Plan 9 From Outer Space. Terror from the Year 5000. Phantom Planet. Robot Monster.
As I was enjoying Eegah last week, I couldn't help but notice what lessons a writer could learn from the mistakes made by bad filmmaking. Eegah is the story of a young woman and her father who are, for reasons not entirely explained, kidnapped by Eegah, a prehistoric caveman (who may or may not be a giant, depending on the particular camera angle at any given frame) and their rescue by the young woman's unintentionally icky boyfriend (who looks like a ferret).
So, a few lessons on making your characters likeable and believable from a movie that did the exact opposite.
1) Stop saying "Wheee." No one says "Wheee." In one otherwise useless scene, the leading lady, Roxy, and her ferret-faced boyfriend, Tom, are riding around in the sand of the California desert on his self-made dune buggy. Punctuating this scene (which got dull after the first dune, by the way) is Roxy's high-pitched squealing "Whee!" as she whoops in excitement.
The problem? No one in the real world actually says "Whee." Or does cheesy double takes or any of the various other symbolic writing/acting we see them doing in books and movies. So while you want to convey to your reader that your character is having a great time, you have to show it in ways that seem realistic--and, bonus, show the character's personality. One person would be death-gripping the seat of that dune buggy, while another would be begging to drive it next. It's almost like cheating to just type out "Wheee!" she cried and move on with it. And the reader feels cheated, too. Give us real reactions that reveal characters...not caricatures.
2) Just because he's the protagonist doesn't mean he's automatically likeable. One of the greatest character mistakes in Eegah was the male lead--Tom the ferret-faced boyfriend. You're supposed to like him. He's supposed to come off as an overeager, good guy who's just trying to make his girlfriend's dad like him. He comes off as icky, annoying, and more than a little creepy. The fact that he insists on pulling out his guitar and singing at odd moments doesn't help. By the time he gets socked in the face by Eegah, the prehistoric cave giant, you're probably rooting for Eegah. I know I was.
The lesson? Just because he's the lead character doesn't mean the audience will automatically engage with him in a positive way. You have to work at it. You have to give us reasons to like the guy, and minimize his annoying ferret-y habits. This doesn't mean he can't be flawed--in fact, Tom doesn't have any deliberate flaws (he's just obnoxious). Show some legitimate weaknesses that let us identify with the character, not someone with nothing negative whatsoever. Keep in mind that even his good traits can, if misused or relied on too heavily, be annoying to a reader. Tom, for instance, whips out a guitar at every opportunity. Instead of "sensitive music lover" this reads as "egocentric weirdo with inability to read social cues." Show background, helping the reader know where the character came from and why he is the way he is. Flat is boring. Give characters dimension.
On second thought, this particular character was just too annoying to fix. Scrap him and get someone else who doesn't have a ferret face. (Illustrating the inevitable moments of rewrite trumping revision.)
3) The "info plant" guy. In Eegah, the father, who is abducted first by Eegah, is some sort of scientist/anthropologist/paleontologist/writer. Yeah, that's as clear as it got. But he was super helpful for explainting Eegah's eccentricities and motivations, from discovering that the caveman's name was Eegah to deciphering the reasons he lived so long--all from spending twenty minutes in a cave with him.
The character is useful for only two things--providing a reason for the two sap-happy teens to go out in the desert (find missing Dad) and providing explanation whenever things seem wonky in the cave. Use 1 is legitimate--motivation. Use 2--not legitimate. He's a human infodump. While it can be great to have characters with insight, it has to be done carefully. No one is an expert in everything, and trying to make someone a catch-all is sure to come off as artificial. And even experts rarely get everything right the first time. Allow them some room for error. In situations that no person has ever found him or herself in before (ie, trapped in a cave with a prehistoric cave giant), they should probably suggest explanations rather than write a thesis on the subject within an hour of the first encounter.
So what about the caveman, Eegah? Probably one of the better-drawn characters in the film, despite that ridiculous fake beard. Clearly, that isn't saying much. But in a role that's half King Kong, half the "Hey You Guys" thing from the Goonies, we do get a character with a good side and a bad side (done deliberately, even)--he's lonely (we identify with him), keeps his dead family propped up against the walls of his cave (woah, creepy...and intriguing), wants to take care of his captives (aww...), but is violent when it comes to letting them go (crisis of character). Though not the best illustration, still a good example of why balance is vital to any character--too much mushy niceness and you've got a boring Hostess Snoball, too much annoying or icky and you've got a ferret-faced Twinkie. Aim for the lovely balance of a Hostess Cupcake--chocolate cake hiding the delicious filling. Or was that way too much metaphor after a really, really bad movie?