Forcing your character to fit a reader’s expectations

As writers, most of us have characters who go off in ways that we don’t expect them to, or even characters who refuse to co-operate when we try to force them to do something that’s out of character. Sometimes we ignore that, and just force them our way anyway.

The result is usually a mess.

Last night I saw Expendables 2.

This is a movie where the actors are more important than the story. So much so that you tend to think of the characters by their actors’ names, rather than the character they are playing. Thus you have Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarznegger, Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris and so on. The one exception was Liam Hemsworth, relatively unknown, who we knew by his character name, Billy the Kid.

I’m ambivalent about Expendables 2. It is a spoof. I know that. The movie is based around other characters the actors are famous for, e.g. Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo, and exists solely because of those other movies. I enjoyed it, but …

I’m going to talk about specific scenes, and there are spoilers, so more after the fold.

The movie felt like fan fiction and not necessarily good fan-fiction at that. It was a homage to the stars who played in it but it was full of plot holes, acts of god and inconsistent characterisation. One of the characters even felt like a blatant Mary Sue.

If it was a novel Sherylyn and I had been writing, I’d consider it an unfinished first draft.

Despite all this, the movie was still fun. For me, I particularly like Stallone’s character, Barney Ross. I like him a lot better than I like Rambo.

It was the sort of movie where, as soon as Billy tells Stallone he wants to quit so he can settle down and marry his girl, you immediately know that Billy is doomed. And he is.

Bad guy (Van Damme) murders Billy; Stallone and the rest of the team are out for revenge.

At the end of the movie there’s the grand finale—where Stallone and van Damme face off. Stallone has a gun and the opportunity to use it. Van Damme taunts him.

“What, going to kill me like an animal?  Shoot me in cold blood,” or words to that effect.

So Stallone throws away his gun and they have this major fight, which the bad guy almost wins (of course) but Stallone trumps him in the end.

The problem was, if Stallone had been playing true to his character in the movie, I believe he would have shot the other guy, with a line like, “You are an animal, you don’t deserve any better.” To me, that would have been a more satisfying end than the stupidity of a staged fight, a lot funnier and, as I said, much more in character.

But this is ‘Rambo’ fighting Claude van Damme. Everyone expects a big fight at the end. So our protagonist goes totally out of character just so he can deliver. If you’re a Rambo/van Damme fan, then I suppose you went out of the film happy enough. As for me, I came out feeling cheated.

Cheated as a viewer—I can’t believe the character would be that stupid; and cheated as a writer—it wouldn’t have been that hard to write a couple of extra scenes so that the fight had to end up in hand-to-hand combat.

As writers we try hard to keep our characters in character. When there’s a mismatch between how the character would react and how you want them to react because you, the author, have planned it that way, you have two options.

  • One. Go with the flow. I think this is the best option because it means the character has gained some life of their own.
  • Two. Change the story to work toward the end that you want. If you find that you’re suddenly at point A and you need to be at point B, don’t just jump to point B. Finesse the story earlier so that to the reader (or the viewer) it makes logical sense to get to point B. So that it’s the only place they can end up.

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