What I Learned from Charles and Erik

x_men__days_of_future_past_poster__2014__by_camw1n-d7ahfneIt’s fitting that after my last post on warriors trained to use the light, I would see a movie with heroic individuals—namely, the latest X-Men movie: Days of Future Past (directed by Bryan Singer; script by Simon Kinberg based on a story by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn and the comic books by Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Terry Austin). Though I totally understand the objections to it (click here for those), I still enjoyed it and learned something from it. So in case you were wondering, the Charles in the post title is Charles Xavier (played by Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy) and Erik is Erik Lehnsherr/Max Eisenhardt/Magneto (played by Sir Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender), though I’ve also learned useful things from Charles Yallowitz.

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michael-fassbender-magneto-x-men-days-of-future-past-1024x1024Though Wolverine (played by Hugh Jackman), Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), and Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) played huge parts in this time travel movie, I’m focusing on Charles and Erik, because they’re like two sides of a coin. Watching these characters interact is a lesson in crafting well-rounded characters. You should run for the hills if you don’t like spoilers. I can’t tell you what I’ve learned if I don’t use spoilers. So, you’ll want to avoid the text between the bold subheads. Trust me, I won’t feel insulted if you decide to bolt. Hopefully, I’ll see you next time. 😀

***SPOILERS***

If you’re familiar with the X-Men franchise, you know that Charles and Erik are mutants (people born with special abilities like metal manipulation [Erik’s ability], psychic control [Charles’s ability], weather control, etc.). They’re also friends who became enemies due to their diametrically opposed views on how to deal with prejudice toward mutant-kind. But in this movie, the scriptwriter flipped a switch by having them become uneasy allies once more in a common cause—saving the lives of all mutants.

Here’s a list of what I learned through this movie (aside from the fact that Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy are easy on the eyes):
The stronger the villain, the stronger the hero needs to be. Charles and Erik (and other mutants) were in jeopardy and had to figure out a way to stop the seemingly unstoppable mutant-killing Sentinels, their creator (Bolivar Trask played by Peter Dinklage), and one of their own kind—Mystique, whose well-meaning but misguided act of murder led to the horrible deaths of mutants in the future. This reminds me of a quote from an Entertainment Weekly article by Anthony Breznican (“A Villain Will Rise”) that I’ve mentioned a number of times in this blog (like here):

The better you make your villain, the better your hero has to be. . . . We call it the Hans Gruber theory. One reason Die Hard is a great action movie is Gruber never makes a mistake, but he’s still defeated by John McClane. McClane is a great hero because he’s up against such a formidable adversary. (47)

The movie provided a great twist by later making Erik “unstoppable” when he donned a helmet that blocked Charles’s psychic control and later took control of the Sentinels. How he did the latter was quite ingenious. Now that he became part of the problem instead of the solution, he had to be outwitted by Charles.

Characters with light and dark parts to their psyches are compelling. That became apparent when we first met the younger version of Charles after Wolverine’s consciousness was sent back in time by Kitty Pryde to enlist Charles’s help and that of Erik to keep the mutant-killing Sentinels project from launching. (Reminds me of the Terminator movies.) Charles, usually the hero, was apathetic and wallowing in his own pain. He didn’t want to be the hero any more. But he later willingly broke the law (breaking Erik out of prison) to get Erik to aid their cause. Erik, usually the antagonist, was content to be the hero when it suited his purposes. We catch a hint of his loneliness as he tried to reconnect with his old friend Charles over a chess game, but was rebuffed—a moment I found poignant.

The best characters never stop being who they are. Erik didn’t suddenly decide, “Wow, I’m a hero, so I’m going to do things by the book.” Instead, he tried to solve the problem his own way, even if that meant killing innocent people in the process. Better that humans die than mutants, in his opinion. But he’d kill a mutant who stood in his way if necessary. (Looking at you, Mystique.) I’m reminded of another quote in that Entertainment Weekly article mentioned earlier: “The strongest villains are often motivated by . . . misguided sense of justice” (47). Charles, on the other hand, despite enormous provocation by prejudiced humans, never stopped working toward a greater understanding between humans and mutants—an extremely difficult choice under the circumstances. Neither could persuade the other to change his viewpoint.

***END SPOILERS***

There are many other aspects to appreciate about this movie and the characters. All point to the enduring quality of well-rounded characters and an author’s ability to make them memorable. Keeping them true to themselves while allowing them to still surprise us helps.

Breznican, Anthony. “A Villain Will Rise.” Entertainment Weekly. 8 November 2013: 46-47. Print

Michael Fassbender as Erik/Magneto photo from nerdacy.com. James McAvoy as Charles photo from digitalspy.com.

Ain’t She/He a Beaut?

Some blog posts seem to write themselves, and this is no exception. It screamed to be born as I drove out of the parking lot of my local library, and fired my synapses to recall a certain grad lecture at VCFA and a subsequent discussion on beauty.

That’s what I want to talk about. Beauty.

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And what interesting timing. As I began this post, a news story flicked across my screen, declaring that People magazine named Gwyneth Paltrow as the World’s Most Beautiful Woman.

Perhaps when you think of beauty, the poem, “She Walks in Beauty,” by Lord Byron comes to mind. Here’s the first stanza:

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes

But I think about an incident during my undergraduate years at Northwestern. (Go Wildcats!) Senior year, my roommate situation was like a revolving door. One would leave and another would arrive. It was just one of those years.

One of those roommates—let’s call her Marcie—had the kind of Miss America looks that guaranteed her male attention. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say. But I don’t think many people would disagree that Marcie “was in high looks” as Jane Austen would say.

At first, I thought, Great. I’m doomed. Whose gonna notice me with her around? And then, Opportunistic Me thought, Maybe I can get her leftovers. So let’s just say I had a catty reaction to Maricie until I came to know her better. She told me her story: how women instantly hated her because of her looks (and I admit I looked shamefaced at that); how some men only wanted her because of her looks. In other words, how objectified she felt.

Long story short, that conversation made a deep impression on me—but not then. I was too busy crying my own river, and couldn’t really see beyond my own nose. Cut to now, with the writing of one of my novels and the point of this post. You see, my main character is physically beautiful. Because of that conversation with Marcie, I wanted to write about a heroine for whom beauty isn’t working—as in Marcie’s case. It slams shut some doors and causes her pain.

YET my character is beautiful. And I can’t think of a book besides Secret Garden, Jane Eyre, and Sarah, Plain and Tall that I’ve read where the heroine wasn’t described as “beautiful,” “pretty,” “in high looks.” (Note the words I’ve read. You might have read others, and I welcome any suggestions of titles.)

I don’t mean those books where the heroine says in that self-deprecating way, “Oh, I’m not beautiful,” but really is, since everyone reminds her that she is, and even animals follow her around. If there’s a love interest/hero, he’s smoking hot—unless he’s Mr. Rochester. But notice the actors cast in the most recent adaptations of Jane Eyre: Michael Fassbender and Toby Stephens.

Actor Michael Fassbender arrives for the BAFTA awards ceremony in London

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They’re not exactly how Charlotte Brontë described Rochester.

The love interest for my main character isn’t what you would call hot. But I fight against the temptation to make him handsome somehow. Kinda like in that stereotypical way when someone takes off a pair of glasses and somehow is an instant knockout. “Oh my goodness! I didn’t notice! You’re gorgeous!!!” I cringe at scenes like that. Just like I cringe at the fact that no one seems to recognize that Clark Kent is Superman, simply because he’s wearing glasses. But I digress. The temptation is there, because I wonder if readers will be turned off if he isn’t hot.

This comes from my often shallow outlook. As I mentioned before, I’m pretty middle grade in my thinking. I used to rate comic book or animation characters by their hotness. Zuko in Avatar? Hot. Tony Stark? Hottie. Thor? Hubba, hubba. (Okay, I shouldn’t lie and say used to. I still rate them that way.)

The issue for me about my main character’s love interest isn’t his looks but his character: how he treats my MC. He’s there for her when others reject her. He’s faithful and loving, but also stubborn and taciturn sometimes. In other words, he’s a real guy, instead of the fantasy I keep trying to inject in my fantasy story.

This is not to say that a hot guy or three aren’t lurking somewhere in my book. But I struggled with whether they really served a purpose, or if their inclusion was my way of worshiping at the altar of beauty. (The jury’s still out on that one.)

What’s your take on beauty? In your WIP, is your main character gorgeous? When you read a book, how important is it to you that a main character be extremely attractive? Please do not misunderstand me. I am NOT against characters who are physically beautiful. I’m just curious.

Photos from greenobles.com and filmofilia.com