On Character: Groot and Lying Cat

One of the most important traits in any character is their voice: how they speak, what kinds of things they say, what phrases they like to repeat, and so on. In my Forgotten Stars books, Lieutenant Rasharri has a number of sayings she is fond of saying all the time: “Think on what you know” being a main one. A lot of the best writers are good at giving characters specific voices. This is one of the better aspects of George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series: think of Tyrion’s sardonic wit, or — my favorite — Dolorous Edd’s eternal conviction that he and he alone will suffer all of the worst possible fates.

But sometimes you’ll have a character whose voice is extremely limited, for one reason or another. How do you allow them to show emotion, then? How you do make a three-dimensional character when they can’t speak, or can only speak in very limited ways? Let’s look at two such characters: Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy, and Lying Cat from Saga.

Groot is a walking, talking tree with enormous strength and a number of other interesting skills. He is also incapable of saying anything other than “I am Groot.”

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Groot has complex thoughts, but in terms of linguistic expression, he is completely stunted. No matter what thought he wishes to express, it comes out as “I am Groot.”

In the Guardians movie, it’s not really spelled out until later on in the film that Groot is capable of deeper, complex thoughts. He just goes along, saying “I am Groot”, and shouting it in rage when a bunch of prison guards start shooting at him. The first half of the film suggests that Groot is little more than a brainless tree-creature, but then we get some real insight into him. Half the heroes are captured by Yondu (long story), leaving Groot and Rocket Raccoon behind. Rocket wants to flee to the farthest corner of the Galaxy, but Groot has other thoughts, and begins saying “I am Groot”, over and over, but in a different tone of voice. “I am Groot!” he says, and Rocket Raccoon responds incredulously: “Save them? How are we gonna do that?”

An even more determined “I am Groot!” follows, to which Rocket responds again. This scene does more than just establish that Groot has feelings; it establishes that despite Groot’s vocabulary of three words, Rocket actually understands him.

Groot’s biggest moment comes in a moment of self-sacrifice, when he uses his own body to protect all of his companions from certain death. Rocket asks him why he is doing this, and for the first time, Groot says something else: “We are Groot.” Somehow…that is perfect. We know exactly what he means, even though his words don’t mean that at all.

So by using tone of voice, context, and a perfectly-placed change, this character with a vocabulary of three (or is it five?) words becomes one of the most expressive in the story.

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So, what about Lying Cat? She comes from a comics series called Saga, which is an adult-themed space opera. (How adult? The opening scene is an alien woman giving birth, and her first line is, “It feels like I’m shitting!”) The comic has an immense cast, but mainly it follows two young people from different species who have fallen in love and had a baby together, despite their respective species having been at war for a long time. Saga is violent and full of sex and has as much shocking death as any George RR Martin novel, but it is also loaded with humor and heart.

The important character for my purposes here is Lying Cat, the traveling partner of a bounty hunter known as The Will. Lying Cat is just a big, nasty-looking cat who lurks about, but she can detect when anyone speaking is saying something untrue, at which point she says a single word: ”LYING.” This natural lie-detector is quite convenient for anyone in the bounty-hunting line of work.

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So how do the writers make Lying Cat more than a plot device? There’s one scene where The Will lands on a “pleasure planet” (basically a giant brothel), but he is informed that Lying Cat is not allowed away from the ship. That results in this:

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While there, The Will rescues a young girl who has been forced to prostitution. A few issues later, this happens:

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Even a lie-detecting cat with one-word vocabulary has a moral compass, and she finds good ways to use it.

What does this illustrate, along with Groot? Even if you have characters whose expression is extremely limited, there are still ways to give them good character moments that stretch their expressive boundaries and allow them to be seen as characters. It’s a challenge, but worth it! These respective stories would suffer greatly without Groot and Lying Cat.

I kind of wonder if George RR Martin has some kind of moment like these in store for Hodor….

UPDATE: I originally identified Lying Cat as a male cat, when she is actually female. I have fixed this. I don’t know how I managed to get through thirty-plus issues of Saga without correctly identifying Lying Cat’s gender, but in truth, it simply isn’t a plot point in any way, and I can’t recall at all when this would have been established. I’m sure it was, though, and I missed it, so the error is mine — and it probably says something that my default assumption was male. That’s a post for another time, though.

 

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On Character, part the second

Hello, all! Time for another post on characters and how to approach them…or how I approach them…or, in this case, how another writer approached them.

So let’s talk about Calvin and Hobbes.

This legendary comic strip is still well known today, despite that fact that its creator, Bill Watterson, ended it nearly twenty years ago (in fact, this coming December 31 will mark the 20th anniversary of the final strip of Calvin and Hobbes). Watterson created a bunch of interesting and memorable characters, and at the center of it all was six-year-old Calvin and his beloved stuffed tiger, who in Calvin’s presence (and only in Calvin’s presence) was a living, breathing being.

Calvin was not very well-behaved. He wasn’t focused in school, he engaged in all manner of shenanigans that got him in trouble constantly, and he wasn’t terribly nice to the little girl down the street. In these particulars, he probably wasn’t all that different from a lot of six-year-old little boys, and while it’s tempting to read into Calvin’s psychology (and yes, you can find a lot of such commentary online), it’s best to realize that it’s all fiction and that Calvin likely is the star of a comedy strip, and not a real kid desperately in need of a truckload of Ritalin.

Watterson does not depict Calvin solely by his negative qualities, though, and it’s telling that those negative qualities seem to only come out when Calvin is forced to engage with other people. Ultimately Calvin is something of a loner, and when he’s allowed to do his own thing, he is depicted as an amazingly creative and imaginative little boy. Mostly this drives everyone around him to distraction, but occasionally people notice that it’s a good thing. There’s one strip that has Calvin imagining that he is A GOD, creating a world out of nothing…and then we cut to his parents in the last panel. Dad says, “Have you seen how absorbed Calvin is with those Tinkertoys? He’s making whole worlds in there!” And his Mom replies, “I’ll bet he grows up to be an architect.” (Of course, they don’t know that Calvin is imagining wreaking his evil vengeance upon the world as a God of the Underworld, but what they won’t know won’t hurt them.)

I read an article some months ago — which I didn’t bookmark and now I can’t find to save my life — that seemed to argue, if I recall correctly, that Watterson erred in ending an early story arc in the C&H run. This arc had Calvin’s Uncle Max (his father’s brother) come to visit, during which time he stuck around and made some commentary on Calvin’s tendency to being a loner and attachment to an “imaginary” friend and so on. The article argued (and again, I may have this very wrong) that Uncle Max represented an opportunity to show Calvin’s continued “growth” in some way. Watterson, on the other hand, recognized Max as a storytelling mistake. In his Tenth Anniversary book, Watterson wrote this about Uncle Max:

I regret introducing Uncle Max into the strip. At the time, I thought a new character related to the family would open up story possibilities: the family could go visit Max, and so on. After the story ran, I realized that I hadn’t established much identity for Max, and that he didn’t bring out anything new in Calvin. The character, I concluded, was redundant. It was also very awkward that Max could not address Calvin’s parents by name, and this should have tipped me off that the strip was not designed for the parents to have outside adult relationships. Max is gone.

That’s pretty insightful. A good character isn’t a good character in and of him or herself. A good character isn’t just well-developed and realistic and memorable and all those other things. A good character must serve the story and fit into the story’s world and tone. A character who doesn’t do those things is not a good character. Unfortunately for Watterson, he realized his error with Uncle Max after the character had already appeared in print, so he couldn’t just strike him from the record, could he? So now, Uncle Max is a real thing, complete with fan speculations and whatnot. (Someone out there has a pet theory that Uncle Max and “Lyman”, a disappeared-character of similar appearance from Garfield, are the same person. I am not making that up, either.)

Max doesn’t fit in the Calvin and Hobbes universe because about the only thing he can offer in terms of storytelling possibilities is a new setting for Calvin’s adventures as a loner, and that’s a pretty lame reason to have yet another outside person to be flummoxed by Calvin’s oddities. The person arguing that Max could have been a key, in some way, to Calvin maturing over time was missing a very huge point.

However, something else interesting happened as the strip neared its conclusion. Watterson eventually did allow a single outside character, and only one outside character, into Calvin’s world. He did this on an extremely limited basis (this character did not suddenly see Hobbes as a real tiger), but this storyline — one of my favorites in the entire run — was the only time I can remember an outside person interacting with Calvin on Calvin’s terms. That person was Rosalyn, Calvin’s embattled babysitter.

Rosalyn was a recurring character whose appearance on the scene always meant funny things were afoot. Her story arcs would run over the course of several days as each time Calvin did something else to get in trouble, make Rosalyn’s night miserable, and amuse the readers with all manner of hijinks. Rosalyn was also smart as a whip; having recognized the inherent lucrative nature of being the only neighborhood babysitter willing to supervise Calvin, she priced her services accordingly, much to the chagrin of Calvin’s dad, who knew that he was getting taken advantage of and could literally do nothing about it.

The last time Rosalyn showed up, the story started in pretty typical fashion. We know what’s going to happen: Rosalyn is going to threaten Calvin with doom if he misbehaves, and he’s going to misbehave anyway, and the night is doomed.

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However, things go slightly differently, as Rosalyn has a different plan:

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Calvin actually meets his end of this bargain (and God bless Watterson’s memory of how big an incentive it can be for a kid, being allowed to stay up late, even just half an hour), and Rosalyn meets hers: allowing Calvin to pick his favorite game to play. Now, she is undoubtedly expecting him to pick Sorry! or Monopoly or some such board game, but of course, Calvin picks Calvinball.

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Calvinball, for those possibly unfamiliar with the strip, is a game whose one and only rule is the rules are never the same each time out. Rosalyn, of course, has absolutely no idea what to expect, but into the game she goes, quickly picking up the “rules”:

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Rosalyn is actually engaging Calvin on his own terms here, and again, as far as I can recall this is the only time this happens with any outside person at all in the history of the strip. It’s really quite fascinating, since by its nature, Calvin and Hobbes is really fairly static in terms of character development for its entire run. Yes, we see different aspects of Calvin’s character over the years, but he never really changes, and that’s as much a necessity of the medium as anything else. (How much did Charlie Brown or Lucy ever change? Or Dagwood? Or Garfield? Or….) But here, we see definite change in one key way: Calvin finds a way (without looking) to connect with Rosalyn, and she finds a way to connect with him. As this story progresses, the water balloon is there, ready to be thrown at someone, and I remember thinking at the time that the water balloon was going to the source of Calvin getting in trouble this time, but then Rosalyn uses the “rules” of Calvinball to her advantage:

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There’s a wonderful coda to this storyline when Calvin’s parents get home and ask how things went, and Rosalyn says something like “Fine! Calvin did his homework, we played a game, and he went to bed,” to which Dad replies, “I’m in no mood for jokes!” He’s utterly convinced, you see, that this night will be like all the others and he’s coming home to an angry babysitter and his misbehaving kid.

(By the way, if you want to read this entire storyline — I don’t include each installment here — start here and click forward. There’s a Sunday strip in there that does not pertain to the Rosalyn storyline.)

Now, is Rosalyn a great character? Not particularly, because like everyone else, we only get to see her through the prism of Calvin and his reactions to her, but she does make possible some great moments along the way. Watterson wisely used her sparingly, noting that each time she showed up there was a sense that he had to outdo himself. With this story, Rosalyn does something no one else has done: she has entered Calvin’s world. It’s telling that this was the last time Rosalyn appeared before the strip ended. I don’t know if Bill Watterson wanted to have someone pull off this feat before he wrapped things up, but for my money, Rosalyn was really the only character who could have done this. For one thing, it’s completely unexpected, but for another, it’s done in the perfect way.

One last observation on this: Watterson also wisely knew what he could do with his characters when. This is important. He couldn’t have this story be the first one when Rosalyn showed up, because then there would be an underlying sympathy for her every time thereafter. This story could only be the last Rosalyn story. Likewise, the James Bond stories can’t start with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Macbeth can’t start with Macbeth having usurped the throne, and so on. The audience has to be prepared to go where the characters are going, and if the characters go there before the audience is — or even can be — ready, then the story is going to feel forced and false.

And with that, I’ll have done. Thanks for hanging in there, and hey! Over the next few weeks, I’ll start dripping out some real concrete information and teaser stuff pertaining to The Wisdomfold Path! November 10 is coming, folks!

 

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On Character, part the first

Writers love to rabbit on and on all day about their characters and how they develop their characters and how they decide what characters do and all that kind of thing. I, of course, am no different. This will, though, require more than one post, hence “part the first”.

So, where to start?

Well, with someone else’s thoughts on characters, of course! In this case, screenwriter William Goldman.

This is occasioned by a post by blogger Lance Mannion, in which he reviews the movie The Ghost and the Darkness. I never actually saw this film, but I know of it; it is a historical adventure movie about the two man-eating lions that terrorized the British railroad crews in Africa many years ago, and the struggles the railroad chief had with killing them. (The lions themselves, after being killed, were stuffed and are now on display in a Chicago museum, believe it or not…and they are a bit scary. But this post isn’t about the lions; it’s about Goldman’s thoughts on the characters in the movie.

The Ghost and the Darkness is not terribly highly regarded, either by critics or by Goldman himself. My impression is that it’s not seen as a bad movie, but mainly as a meh movie. Goldman has some very definite thoughts as to why this is, and he lays some of that blame at his own feet in the chapter on this movie in his book Which Lie Did I Tell? (which, by the way, I consider essential reading for fiction writers, even if they’re not writing for film).

By way of background before I excerpt Goldman: it took the railroad chief, a man named Patterson, nine months to kill the two lions, and he mainly did it by waiting and sitting vigil at night and laying traps and that sort of thing. Goldman’s problem, in scripting a movie about the lions of Tsavo (where this all happened), was that the real story doesn’t make for compelling film. So Goldman had to add a second, entirely fictional, character whom he dubbed “Redbeard”, to add excitement and drama to the story.

Here, now, is William Goldman.

Redbeard was always and forever only this: a plot point. I needed, for today’s audience, to make Patterson, my hero, more heroic. So I came up with what I thought would be a suitable device.

Redbeard would be a professional who came, did his job, moved on when the job was over. There were, in point of face, people who lived that way. Hunting was popular among the very rich, and there were men for hire if you were a Russian prince and wanted to shoot in America. Or Africa. Or the mountains of India. You hired them for weeks or months, and they saw you get the best chance at game. Protected you in the bargain.

What made Redbeard different was he was a legend even to other professionals. In other words, the greatest hunter in the world.

In the very first draft, his part was relatively small. Patterson was in terrible trouble. The lions had stopped the railroad. Redbeard entered, sized up the situation. Now, I couldn’t have him win immediately, because that would have denigrated the lions. So…he came up with the notion of putting Patterson high up, all alone, in a clearing, on a rickety wooden support. Patterson is alone and helpless. Redbeard is in the area. The Ghost [one of the lions, the other being The Darkness] comes. Then the Ghost attacks, Redbeard wounds it, together they kill it and triumph.

The point now was for the audience to relax. The cavalry had come to the rescue.

Then, the next morning, when Redbeard is eaten, Patterson, poor helpless fellow, would be alone against The Darkness, what chance could he possibly have if even Redbeard had failed?

The fact is this: Redbeard worked as a device.

My problem, Doctor, was he worked too well. In all the succeeding drafts, the powers that be wanted more of him. Obviously, they saw a costarring part. Fine for them.

Biiiig problem for me.

Let me try and explain why.

[In this telling, Redbeard sounds similar to Quint, the grizzled fisherman in JAWS. Or, that’s how he should have been. Reading on….]

One of the great exchanges in movie history — I don’t mean ‘great’ in the sense of Shakespearean, because screenwriting isn’t about that; I mean ‘great’ in the sense of being supremely helpful, of defining character — anyway, it’s in Casablanca, by the Epsteins and Howard Koch. Probably you remember the moment. Bogart is talking to Claude Rains in front of his club.

RAINS: And what in heaven’s name brings you to Casablanca?

BOGART: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

RAINS: Waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

BOGART: I was misinformed.

Let’s talk about this for a moment. First of all, it is wonderfully elegant dialogue. Witty, plus it makes you laugh out loud. I wish to God I’d written lines as glorious as “I was misinformed.”

But what does it tell us? Well, it could be telling us that Rick is geographically challenged, coming to the desert for a water cure. But I think “I was misinformed” tells us he knew exactly where he was.

What it tells us is this: Don’t ask. What is tells us is: Bad things happened, it’s dark down there, and I will die before I tell you. A lot of that comes from the dialogue, a lot from the speaker of the dialogue.

The character of Rick, of course, is very old — he is the Byronic hero, the tall dark handsome man with a past. Most movie stars — actors, not comedians — have essentially all played the same role. And they have to always face front, never turn sideways–

Because, you see, there’s nothing to them. Try and make them full, try and make them real, and guess what? They disappear.

Let me rewrite that exchange for you now. Let’s say Rains is talking not to Bogart, but to Dooley Wilson.

RAINS: And what in heaven’s name brought Rick to Casablanca?

DOOLEY: You don’t want to know.

RAINS: But I do, I asked the question.

DOOLEY: His life turned to shit, Claude. He hated his job, but he should never have sold insurance in the first place. And then his wife, she died having their hid, who died too. He got so depressed, y’know? [This continues a bit…snipping it down.]

Think about what that does to one of the greatest of all Hollywood movies. It makes Rick a wimp. It makes him a loser. Kills the flick, ruins it, destroys it, makes it an Adam Sandler flick. Never forget the following:

Hollywood heroes must have mystery.

OK, Back to Billy’s little Redbeard problem. I had written a Byronic hero. He’s Shane. The village is in trouble, he rides in, saves it, rides out. For that very great Western directed by the very great George Stevens, it is crucial that we know nothing about the guy. Ever.

The bigger Redbeard’s part became, the more risk for me, because the more you expose that character to the sunlight, the more he starts to fade.

Skipping forward a little, Michael Douglas comes on board as a producer and to play the Great Hunter role, originally named “Redbeard”. This is where Goldman finds things going awry:

The first thing that went was the name.

No big deal, you are probably thinking, and of course, you are correct. It is not a big deal. Except writers are nuts — that is a law in the State of California as you no doubt know — and we love the names we give our made-up friends and acquaintances. A lot of us can’t even start until we know our people’s names.

I loved “Redbeard.” I thought it was a terrific name; and I thought it was helpful in trying to make the guy mythic. Just that single word, those two syllables and you were talking about someone whose exploits had filled the nights beside a thousand campfires.

I lucked into the name Remington pretty quickly. Sold myself that if not as good, at least it didn’t suck. Still the one word, and there was the echo of the gun that was so famous in settling the Wild West.

Sigh of relief.

Then, sharply, I was into nightmare.

Michael wanted Remington to have a history.

 

This next scene is one of the worst things I’ve ever written. I actually remember my stomach cramping when I did it. It comes the first night Michael Douglas has arrived to save the day. In the background, a bunch of warriors are getting ready  to jump around and give themselves courage. Douglas is talking to Kilmer and Samuel, who is the narrator of the film, a native helping Patterson as best he can. Another native comes up and indicates to Remington that they are ready. Remington leaves and the camp doctor, who has also been present, comments that Remington is indeed a strange man. Here is what Samuel replies to that — get ready, hold your noses.

SAMUEL: Two great tribes of his country fought a terrible civil war for many years.

VAL KILMER: And his side lost?

SAMUEL: Everything. Land and family. The very young ones and the very old ones. All lost. He buried his family and left his country forever. Now he hunts all over the world but he always returns here. He says Africa is the last good place.

Remember my made-up speech about Bogart taking a course in nightclub management? Same thing here. This is what that speech and ensuing references to Remington’s past do to this legendary figure: They make Remington a wimp. They make him a loser. He’s just another whiny asshole who went to pieces when the gods pissed on him. “Oh, you cannot know the depth of my pain” is what that seems to be saying to the audience. Well, if I’m in that audience, what I think is this: Fuck you. I know people who are dying of cancer, I know people who are close to vegetables, and guess what — they play it as it lays.

This little speech may not seem like much but not only does it cast a pall over everything that follows, it destroys the fabric of the piece. Every ensuing mention of Remington and children and loss is all so treacly you want to whoopsie. Never forget the following:

Movie stars must have mystery.

Now, Goldman is primarily concerned with movie characters here, and while there are different concerns when writing for movies as opposed to writing novels or plays or teevee or whatever, storytelling is still storytelling. You’ve got to do right by your characters and you’ve got to do right by your audience, whether they’re sitting in the dark watching your tale or sitting by the sea reading it. Every character has a backstory, but there really are times when it’s best to not delve too deeply into it. (This is one reason I’m a little nervous about the idea of one of these one-shot Star Wars movies being a “Young Han Solo” story.)

I will, of course, return to the subject of characters in the future. This was only a start, dear readers!

 

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