Stardust Shines: Character Motivation-ism

stardustSometimes 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.

How not to write Fantasy: The Forbidden Kingdom

The movie is based on one of the oldest known novels, Journey to the West, a Chinese Epic. Written down finally in the 1590s from oral stories dating much farther back, it’s 100 chapters long and is one of the four classic novels of Chinese literature, so any screenwriter would have challenges in writing up even a portion of it for screen. Whether The Forbidden Kingdom works on a literature-to-movie basis or not is not my point below. It doesn’t matter to me if the movie represents any part of the classic novel itself, or whether the Monkey King is true to character as depictd by Wu Cheng’en, the purported author of the novel.

To me the problem is always how the film stands up as a story. And here for me the movie serves as a good example on how not to write a Fantasy.

1. There is very little character set-up for the main character and the character that does develop is unlikeable. His name is so forgettable that I have forgotten it. Josh or Seth watches a LOT of kung-fu movies–we know this because of his room decor, posters and posters of old films. He rents movies. He has a thin relationship to the old shopkeeper–who seems to run a kung-fu Movie Warehouse and Knick Knack store. The movie seems in a hurry to get us to the “object”–the staff–and so makes Josh/Seth see it through a door that’s been left open, pick it up off the floor, and we get to feel the “weird” importance of the object. In the next scene, unknown girl gets Josh/Seth to tell us what he does and why he lives there–she’s so much a schill that she doesn’t even scream when Josh is then beat up by a gang of thugs. He doesn’t react much either. When they discover he has rented movies from Shopkeeper’s Kung-fu Emporium, they assume he can get them in to see the old guy and rob him. He walks them straight to the shop, tricks the shopkeeper, and watches as they beat him up.

Okay, I don’t like this character already. He’s shuffled through his plot points like an understudy during a rehearsal (and then you’ll stumble here and then you’ll look pathetic here and then ….) and allowed to have no reaction to what the director wants us to think as weakness. But this isn’t just weakness of strength and skill–as the movie makes it out to be–but HUGE weakness of character. He doesn’t have to lead Thugs to the Shop. He has taken thugs to an old man to beat him up. Without more plot to tell me he was forced or coerced, he’s an accomplice. I could have actually liked him if they had beat him up because he hadn’t led them to the old man. But now I think he’s worthless. The Thugs are merely there so we can (spoiler!) see them beat up at the end.

We know nothing about Josh/Seth but that he has an addiction to Kung-Fu. No background, no relationships–he’s a cypher. His choices are to not choose. I don’t believe he doesn’t try to run or fight back against the thugs. I don’t believe he would lead them to this shopkeeper. I don’t believe he’d stand back and let the shopkeeper get beat up. And if I DID, that would make Josh/Seth into a worthless person, not a sympathetic one, and not one who gets to go to 13th Century China, or is that 12th? Anyway.

On another note, the only movies that the writers have seen are the Karate Kid movies—Josh/Seth is a dead ringer for Ralph Macchio, and the beat-up gang scene and the old man are plot point for plot point Karate Kid; even Josh/Seth’s past–a kid from New Jersey–is straight from KK’s bio.

2. Pick up Companions at the Corner of First and Main. Well, Joseph Campbell would have been happy. Naive character, after going unwillingly into adventure, is taken to an otherworldly bar. I was waiting for the Star Wars Cantina theme here as Josh/Seth tried to get Jackie Chan to help him. All the main companions will say no first and then there they are marching with him. We merely pick them up as the plot goes on, and we pick them up for no reason. There are no extra characters–those we might pick up, those who might become important–just the Main Characters and the Villains.

3. Josh/Seth’s unprecedented rise to Kung-fu competency: never before has one mastered Kung Fu so quickly except in the Matrix. There are some funny moments here, more than anywhere else in the movie, genuinely good dialogue that plays on J/S’s knowledge of kung-fu moves, or rather the names for moves. This should have been a constant shtick–J/S quoting movie references, etc and pitting them against “reality”. Unfortunately, he seems to know as much about those movies as Wikipedia could tell him. He can list off moves. But what do his movies tell him about plots, expectations, characters?

4. None of the places are really used. I loved the movie, Hero, because each setting became a living character, part of the plot, and part of the action. Here a cherry blossom orchard is a backdrop. A pit that leads to magma is merely a piece of furniture–not a real obstacle for any of the fighting….there’s no threat that anyone will fall into that magma. A field of very long reeds/wheat/something is merely there to cut into for some training. Our characters go from sudden desert to sudden lush green hills–quite the ecosystem juxtapositioning.

5. The characters are plastic with plastic motives. Sparrow is out for revenge. Jackie Chan is along for the ride, perhaps to be the kid’s mentor, though we don’t know why. Jet Li is a monk seeking the staff. The Witch wants immortality–because everyone wants it (apparently there’s only enough juice to make one person eternal). The Jade Warlord wants the staff. The kid has to return the staff to “its rightful owner.” No one in the story thinks about the motivation they were handed on a card. No one thinks of turning back, of making a different decision, of negotiating a deal. There are NO complications. Fantasies can’t be built on a single plot system–with no twists. We know that the characters have to reach their destination–it’s in the script. I’m never in doubt because these aren’t real characters–they are an assembled entourage for the audience. They escort us through the plot–and, dang, they aren’t even that entertaining.

I almost walked out of the movie–it had nothing to hold my interest. Even the fight scenes. Nothing new was given to Kung-fu repetoire–not like the movies it purported to love in the opening credits. I got tired of watching the kung-fu kicks–and I can watch Matrix 1-3, which can’t be comparable to classic Kung Fu, several times!

There was one surprise in the movie, and I won’t give it away, but it wasn’t possible even by the movie’s logic. I think I will show this movie whenever I get half way through teaching a Fantasy writing course. Yes, it still manages to string together a bad plot, but getting to the end of your plot is not the end of your quest, Grasshopper.