Sometimes it’s simply about giving everyone something to want, something realistic, and then setting them on their paths. Stardust, the Neil Gaiman-inspired movie, does a great job of giving characters real desires and then setting them at odds with each other.
If you are writing science fiction or fantasy, even well-developed characters function at half-power until they have a goal. Once they have a goal–man, they zip! This is one of my favorite things to watch, as objectively as I can, that moment in my heart and interest level when the character finds a goal. It has to be something they want, not just an interesting goal that should be “universally interesting.” They have to want it enough to maneuver through a tangly set of obstacles.
Stardust Plot summary: To woo Victoria, poor boy Tristan promises to get her the falling star they just saw. When he goes to get the star, he discovers Yvaine, a woman, is the star that fell. Three witches want to eat Yvaine’s heart to make them younger, and seven scheming princes want the throne–which can only be had if they can find the necklace, which happens to be with Yvaine. So people want Yvaine for what she can give them: eternal life, long lasting beauty, a kingdom. Tristan wants her to impress Victoria.
Really clear goals: Tristan wants to win the heart of Victoria. When he meets up with Yvaine (Claire Danes) he doesn’t suddenly switch goals. He could have life immortal or even Claire Danes! But no, he wants Victoria. He promised to have her this star and that’s what he’ll do. Yvaine won’t budge until she sees he has a Babylon Candle which could actually get her home—so she goes with Tristan on his way to Victoria because he promises to send her back home when he gets done showing off in front of his girl.
The pirates collect lightning, the witches want beauty, the princes want the kingdom and to kill each other. When all their plots become melded into a single objective–from different angles–it revs up into high gear.
I enjoyed this movie. I think it’s well designed. The narrative is strong and is propelled by the desire lines of each character. I love how all of them use similar means to get them to where they need to go: runes. Not a map, not a prophecy, but unpredictable magic that you have to keep checking over and over again.
It helps that the scenery–meaning the place, the occupations, the “world- building” is interesting–but without desire, it is just scenery. With desire, it becomes charming. There are few memorable lines in the movie–this isn’t “Princess Bride”, though I believe the plots are just as good. The comedy isn’t as strong–too many characters for you to memorize everything. And this is its only fault, I think, that the characters may be well-motivated, extremely well-motivated, but rarely rise above stereotype–even with all the “cool stuff” around them. They are stock characters with bling.
Tristan IS his want. Other than his desire, he is a bit of a goof whose entire existence seems to be winning the heart of Victoria. No mention of what his life was like before, or his relationship with his dad and having no mom. Yvaine has a bit more character–she has been spending her life as a star watching us (we’re so entertaining to celestial beings) so she’s always wanted to have an adventure and fall in love. But really we can’t imagine her life as a star. Which is why she is so much more interesting on Earth (she’s got motivation and means). The witches seem obsessive—and we wonder how they spent their time before the star fell. Oh, you know, the last three hundred years…. The princes are fiendish, but they have no personalities outside of good/bad/opportunistic. They want the kingdom–they only exist to push their plotline.
So, after all is said and done: character motivation, aka desire, is essential to move characters along, but without more character work–as in WHO these people are that make them different than their archetypal roles–desire becomes plot without managing to deepen character. I imagine that Gaiman packed more into the novel, but on screen we may only have time for one choice: character desire vs. character development.
Ebert gave this 2 1/2 stars out of 4, saying that plotlines were convoluted and that the movie never rose to the level of “Princess Bride.” I didn’t think the plotlines were convoluted, but only that the plotlines were so well charted that it left little room for characters to grow beyond the plot necessities–but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t satisfy like the best story–especially the fairytale kind of story it represents. I would still give it 3 out of 4 stars—it’s a great movie. Really. And not making it to Princess Bride Status is not necessarily a fault. It’s a clever romp through a well-developed world. All the pieces are in place and they interact with each other well, and you can learn a lot about the power of character motivation, and the power of character too. Even when character shines less than character desires.