“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.

Taming the Potential Breakout Character

And no, the title is not an allusion to Shakespeare’s play, The Taming of the Shrew. . . . Okay, perhaps subconsciously it is. But I’m thinking of a character in one of my works in progress. You see, when I wrote the first five or so chapters, I came away with the following equation in regard to this character:

Feisty (willing to shoot someone without thinking about it) + prone to adages = possibly more interesting than the main character

Do you see the problem? So, what is the solution? Give A more quirks and B less? Tried that. Didn’t work. The characters had to be who they are.

Hey, no problem, right, if this character turns out to be a breakout character—a secondary character whose role grows with his or her popularity? After all, who wouldn’t want to develop a character readers love and quote often? But I want readers to love my main character, to see her as more than a piece on a chessboard waiting to be moved out of the “breakout” character’s way.

When you think of a breakout character, who do you think of first? Han Solo? Captain Jack Sparrow? Arthur Fonzarelli (the Fonz in Happy Days)? Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer? The Cigarette Smoking Man from X-Files? I usually think of Han Solo. This could be because I’m watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars (season one) and the series creators sometimes refer to the original Star Wars movies. Han is the brash bad boy whose flaws are obvious and interesting.

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But let’s get back to my story and the troublesome equation. The solution I came up with was to make B less active. This involved removing her for most of the story and having A’s journey be about finding B. In this way A can be more active and show what she’s made of.

I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t this still The B Show with the plot centering on B? Good question. During the draft phase, I asked myself these questions: What if A had to choose whether or not B lived or died? What if there was a compelling reason for B to die? Then I had something along the lines of (but not exactly like) the search for Walter Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, the 1979 movie directed and co-scripted by Francis Ford Coppola (an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness).

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Though ordered on a mission to find and kill Colonel Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando), Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen) has agency. He has to go through the rigors of the journey. But the power of choice—to kill or not—is still his.

And that’s what it’s all about, Charlie Brown—making sure each character is active, but not more than my main character. I had to make the hard choice to deactivate my potential breakout character to keep her from taking over the book like an overbearing person hogging a conversation. As the old saying goes, sometimes a little bit goes a long way. With B out of the way, I had room to go deeper with A, to plumb the depths of her soul as I shared her story.

Do you find yourself in this situation? What tips do you have for taming the breakout character? Who is your favorite breakout character in movies or television?