“Too Noble to Be Cool”?

At first I planned to ditch this post, but changed my mind and finished it anyway. So here goes.

Charlie-Hunnam-King-ArthurAn Entertainment Weekly article on Charlie Hunnam, who stars as King Arthur in an upcoming film directed by Guy Ritchie, got my hackles up, especially with comments like this:

Arthur has a bit of a Superman problem: He’s too noble to be cool or dangerous, and he’s rarely conflicted. (Sullivan 23)

In order to make him “cool,” the filmmakers decided to tweak Arthur’s origin story to make him a “streetwise” orphan ala Oliver Twist. I can’t help but notice how making someone “cool” usually involves putting that person in the theft/smuggling trade ala Han Solo, Aladdin, Flynn Rider in Disney’s Tangled, or, come to think of it, Indiana Jones. He didn’t just “borrow” those artifacts from those temples, y’know. (Yeah, yeah. Archaeology. Blah blah blah. But it really depends on your cultural viewpoint, doesn’t it?)

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For some, a character is interesting only if he’s the bad boy or at least has an edge to him. In other words, if the character is an antihero. I call this the Han Solo Syndrome. Though I have a soft spot for Han Solo, Flynn Rider, Aladdin, and Indiana Jones, I’m wary of the proposed revised history for King Arthur. While the filmmakers have a right to do what they want with this film, an attempt to revamp the King Arthur story flopped in 2004, as the article pointed out. I don’t fully know how Ritchie & Company will adjust Arthur’s back story for this movie. Entertainment Weekly gave only a few hints (like the fact that the new Arthur will be raised by three prostitutes).

According to Hunnam,

You need to see a character grow, and you need conflict. . . . If somebody is walking around with noble aspirations and then they find out that they’re King of England, wonderful, but it’s all a bit boring. . . .

I agree with him about the need for growth and conflict. But the “boring” judgment call shows a sadly one-note view of “good” characters. I’ve written about this before.

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Charlie Hunnam as King Arthur

“Too noble to be cool”? “Boring?” The issue seems to be with the notion of the heroic archetype. I’ve seen this archetype challenged more and more in our so-called “enlightened” age. When I was a kid, we used to call a virtuous person a “goody-goody” if we wanted to make fun of him or her. If we don’t believe anyone can be that selfless and noble, we might say the same. But what’s really needed is a better understanding of the strength and complexity of good.

Since the EW article focuses on a guy, I’ll concentrate on guys. I know some really good guys—men and teens with faith and ideals. But not a single one of them constantly walks around humming and thinking “noble” thoughts about kissing babies and rescuing puppies. All of them struggle with temptation, fear, doubt—the usual stuff. None of them claims to be perfect. They make mistakes. Yet they strive to be good husbands, good dads, good friends—good people. Doesn’t sound boring to me.

Would anybody call soldiers, fire fighters, police officers—people who rush into danger and protect others—“a bit boring”? Yet the people in these professions work toward what’s good. Many have a strong sense of justice and a need to help others. Yes, there are some bad apples according to current events. But for the most part, you’ve got people who put themselves on the line for others. Many of us know people in these professions. We see their foibles as well as their bravery. Good fictional heroes can be like this. (I’m thinking of Spider-Man, Green Lantern, and Luke Callindor, Charles Yallowitz’s hero in Beginning of a Hero.)

An author’s job is to develop characters a reader will find compelling. I grew up loving the story of King Arthur and the knights of the round table. When I was a kid, I read T. H. White’s book, The Once and Future King. I never found it boring nor did I find Arthur “too noble to be cool.” He made mistakes and sometimes doubted his leadership; yet he strove to do the right thing. I find that compelling. But the filmmakers seem to think he’s not macho enough, and hope that Hunnam and his hotness will make Arthur an action hero. (Okay, the photo on the magazine cover makes a convincing argument.)

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The jury is out on whether or not I’ll see the new King Arthur movie. I’m not sure when it’s due out. The actors are still in the process of filming it. The only question I have for anyone adapting the story of an existing character is this: If you find that character to be boring or uncool, and have to make a whole bunch of changes to make him or her more interesting, why adapt the story in the first place?

Sullivan, Kevin. “The Sword and the Stone-Cold Fox.” Entertainment Weekly 31 July 2015: 20-27. Print.

Charlie Hunnam from hypable.com and femalefirst.co.uk. Flynn Rider from tangled-wallpaper.blogspot.com. Harrison Ford as Han Solo from solidsmack.com. Once and Future King cover from Goodreads.

Diamond in the Rough

aladdin-4897Remember that scene in Disney’s Aladdin (1992) where evil vizier Jafar was told to look for a “diamond in the rough”? Okay, maybe you don’t think about these things as often as I do, so just nod your head, even if you don’t remember that scene. Anyway, this diamond in the rough—Aladdin—was the key to Jafar’s nefarious scheme to retrieve Genie’s lamp in the Cave of Wonders.

But those of us watching the movie realized early on that Aladdin, the street rat, was a diamond in the rough. Sure, the narrator told us. But we would have figured that out eventually, and not just because Aladdin himself sang about there being “so much more to me,” and had great hair and surprisingly sparkling teeth for someone living on the street.

Ever see a rough diamond? If not, you can if you watch this video. But you might check out a company called Diamond in the Rough, which sells—you guessed it—rough diamonds. Their philosophy:

The cost of cutting and polishing a diamond adds only a tiny fraction to its price. Even if the diamond goes on to become polished, its polished price is still determined by what it was worth in its original, natural rough form.

I find this company fascinating because for them a diamond’s most important quality is its character. If you check out their website, you’ll see the traits that make up a diamond’s character (color, carat, clarity, and shape). If a diamond hadn’t already received full marks in character, they wouldn’t sell it.

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The aspect of a character’s being a “diamond in the rough”—someone worth writing a whole book about—became clear to me, starting in my first semester at VCFA. My advisor told me to write a short story using a character from the novel I was failing miserably to revise. Before I entered the program, I had written and revised the novel, and even sent it around to agents. After multiple rejections, I entered the MFA program and set out to discover how to rework the novel. I decided to start over with it. But every word I wrote felt forced. After three months, my advisor suggested that I take time away from the novel and relax. And relaxing still meant writing—this time a short story.

I chose a character, an elf, a tertiary character with little life beyond the one chapter in which he appeared. He was like a movie extra whose job was to walk through a scene. Well, 45 pages later (for me, that’s a short story), after I became better acquainted with him, I realized I had a diamond in the rough, a character I could polish and allow to sparkle in his own novel.

The same thing happened in my fourth (and last) semester. Consequently, my current work in progress stars yet another character mined from the same novel I had written and tried to rewrite that first semester (and second and third). This character at least had a speaking role in that novel, but little presence beyond a few scenes. Unlike the novel I couldn’t successfully rework over three semesters, the first book of her journey is complete. (Still working on the elf’s book.)

But in my current book, another diamond in the rough showed hidden facets I didn’t see at first, but my advisor and other classmates saw. While this character would have been condemned to just a walk-on role, he is now the companion on the journey my main character takes and has become the main character in the second book of my duology.

These experiences showed me that sometimes something has to die in order for new life to begin. I’m not just saying that because Easter just passed. I’m saying that because an entire novel—hundreds of pages, years of work—had to die in order for these “diamonds in the rough” to live—characters whose stories would never have been told. Did it hurt to bury that novel? Yep. But these characters needed to be pulled out of my overpopulated novel and allowed to roam about the open land, living their own lives like . . . uh . . . free range chickens. (I’ve been dying to mention chickens for weeks. Glad I got that in.)

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Got a diamond in the rough? How did you discover this character? How will you polish him or her?

The lyrics of Aladdin’s song, “One Jump Ahead,” were written by Howard Ashman; music by Alan Menken.