I’ll say this again for clarification: the reason I write these articles (aside from it being fun to rant about stuff that I hate) is to make my readers aware of different things in movies that I deem unacceptable. My hope is that you too, dear readers, will be persuaded to think the same things as me, but of course, my opinions about movies are not flawless; if you ever disagree with the things I hate, by all means, call me out on it so that I can improve my opinions as I am trying to improve your opinions.
So as it turns out, I had a lot to say about character development, so instead of giving you a couple of things I hate, I’m just dedicating part 2 of “Things I Hate in Movies” to Blank Slates.
(Minor Spoilers for the following: The Legend of Tarzan, Now You See Me 2, Zootopia, Ghostbusters (2016), Me Before You, Mother’s Day, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Mad Max: Fury Road, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and World War Z)
Blank Slates (and Poor Character Development in General)
(Liam Hemsworth in Independence Day: Resurgence)
With well over a hundred movies coming out every year, there has to be some sort of way to make your character stand out amongst the crowd of protagonists, antagonists, and supporting characters. Unfortunately, there are too many movies that just settle for their character having almost no defining character traits.
These types of characters are known as “Blank Slates”. Blank Slates, in my opinion, are put in movies for a couple of different reasons:
- It cuts out the hard work of making your character consistent or realistic.
- It’s a cheap way to make the audience relate to the character (because often, moviegoers just subconsciously project themselves onto the main character, and blank slates are apparently easier to do that).
I have made a graph to show how I think most characters should be developed:
If this graph is confusing to you, allow me to explain:
So a character MUST have a definable personality. This personality must be affected by character’s environment, family structure (or lack thereof), career choices (or lack thereof), and past experiences.
This developed personality must then be the blueprint to how a character speaks (through dialogue) and how a character makes decisions. This makes an interesting character that we can relate to or at least understand. The character does not even have to be likable, just interesting.
(ALSO, Keep in mind, that the above traits that affect a characters personality do not necessarily need to be revealed to the audience. As long as the writer and director know them, then they can make a character whose actions and words can RELAY their past.)
Now, unfortunately, this is how a lot of lazy movies create characters:
This is the easiest way to make characters, because ALL people in the entire world have some sort of family life and some sort of desirable career.
Where humans differ is their experiences, their environment, and therefore how they speak and make decisions. Now yes, creating these characters is hard. I understand that not everybody has the time, skill, money, or patience to develop characters. But they must understand that their movie and characters will be absolutely forgettable if they don’t put in the effort.
Here is an experiment to test whether or not a character is properly developed or not:
Think of a movie character and start listing out his/her traits, then once you’re done, cross out anything relating to
- His family structures (because everyone has one)
- His job (because everyone has one)
- Physical appearance (because… well, you know)
The more traits you have left with, the more developed the character is, theoretically. A good character should have at least four or five.
I’ll start with three positives:
Max Rockatansky (Mad Max: Fury Road)
Former Cop Had a daughter at one point
- Is haunted by the people that he could not save
- Is extremely untrusting of other human beings
- Is extremely possessive of his stuff (especially his car and his jacket, both of which were taken from him)
- A man of few words
- Properly motivated when finding a cause worth fighting for
Now all of these things I picked up because of
A. His Actions in the movie
B. What he says in the movie
Get how this works now?
Let’s try another:
Scott Pilgrim (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World)
Is a bass player Unemployed
- Is absolutely selfish and willing to prolong breakups or abandon band practice for whatever makes him feel comfortable
- Shrugs off or runs away from any sort of conflict
- Is a hopeless romantic
- Insecure due to a past breakup
- Has no awareness of how much of an asshole he is
Now, notice how Scott Pilgrim’s character traits don’t really make him into a likable person. In fact, much of the humor of Pilgrim is he really makes a terrible hero and boyfriend, yet he is forced to face all of Ramona’s evil exes like he is some sort of hero.
Here’s one more:
Judy Hopps (Zootopia)
(Mark this day! For once, I’m using Zootopia as a positive…)
The oldest of a large country family Wants to be a police officer
- Is constantly trying to prove herself
- Does not think highly of her family
- Is completely insecure due to childhood experiences and because her coworkers doubt her
- Is not necessarily afraid to fudge the rules (as she blackmails Nick Wilde to get him to help her).
- Is an obnoxious millennial
Note: these traits of hers (and of all characters) should allow for conflict and/or change in order to make an interesting story.
Here is a few bad examples:
Jack Wilder (Now You See Me 2)
(And honestly? Just Dave Franco in general…)
Is a professional magician who specializes in card tricks. Is part of the The Four Horsemen He’s…. attractive? He’s a good guy?(Note: Being a good guy is NOT a definable characteristic)
This is the problem I had with Now You See Me 2: NO ONE HAS ANY SORT OF CHARACTERISTICS ASIDE FROM WHAT THEY DO AS MAGICIANS.
Here’s another one:
John Clayton / Tarzan (The Legend of Tarzan)
He’s heir to some wealthy estate Raised by apes He’s married to Jane
- He lived in the jungle and therefore knows thing about the jungle
- He wants to save his wife from being kidnapped
The problem with The Legend of Tarzan is that they made Tarzan such a blank slate. The movie never explores how going from the jungle to being a rich Englishman has affected him (except his hands forming differently from walking like an ape… a trait they only mention once). And they never show him truly agonizing over trying to find his wife. Tarzan is basically as interesting as a rock.
Here’s one more that I believe is a perfect example:
Gerry Lane (World War Z)
Has a wife and children Was a former secret agent for the United States
- He’s… smart.
- He, I don’t know, makes good decisions (but not all of the time)
Gerry Lane is quite possibly the worst character Brad Pitt has ever played. Pitt has been able to pull of some amazing characters, but if you give him (or any other great actor) a character that’s only definable traits are his family and his job, then there is NOTHING he can do.
S0 the next time you think, “Man, these characters are boring”, give yourself this test. If you can’t come up with very many definable traits, it’s probably why you think he/she is boring.
If you CAN think of more than four, then ask yourself, is the character boring because all of these traits are a cliche, or do you just not LIKE the character?
Here are a few other tidbits that are also pet peeves of mine:
- Avoid Role Reversals.
When you develop a particular trait of a character, it becomes rather awkward when that trait is then portrayed through another character that has never demonstrated that trait.
An example of this is when Kristen Wiig of Ghostbusters (I’m not even going to try to remember the character names) is constantly referencing her sexual attraction to Chris Hemsworth’s character. However, when Hemsworth is being possessed by a ghost, it’s Melissa McCarthy’s character who utters this line: “Let’s go save [Hemsworth’s character]! There’s no way in hell we’ll find another secretary that attractive.”
Why? Why didn’t Wiig’s character say this? McCarthy’s character not only NEVER demonstrated any physical attraction to Hemsworth, but she actively condemned Wiig’s objectifying of him.
- Do not make a character trait and then not demonstrate it.
So apparently, according to Nick Frost Dwarf from The Huntsman: Winter’s War, dwarf women are so ugly that it is unthinkable to flirt with one. I just took them at their word (especially since Frost Dwarf was flirting with a fairly unattractive woman before this piece of dialogue).
But then, they meet two female dwarfs later, and both are more attractive than the woman at the tavern Frost was flirting with.
Maybe I’m wrong; maybe this was just character development demonstrating that dwarfs are lying idiots.
- If you want to make a particular character trait: FOLLOW THROUGH WITH IT.
In “Me Before You”, I could tell that the movie was trying to make Will Traynor some angry person that was trying to push everyone away with distance and insults. This was supposed to contrast Lou Clark’s bubbly personality…. except there was never a point in time where Traynor’s meanness made me think, “Holy shit… he’s a jerk.” Instead, he’s just some watered down angry person, and it really harmed the movie being able to take off. I didn’t find Traynor interesting until he started liking Lou Clark because the movie failed to make him mean.
- Don’t give a character a career/family trait that contradicts how the character actually behaves.
Mother’s Day. This horrendous spawn of a film was devoid of self-awareness. One of the many instances of this was having wimpy Jason Sudeikis be some sort of former Marine sergeant. This confused me to no end because Sukeikis was walked all over by every woman in the entire movie. I mean call me crazy, but I assumed that being in command of freaking marines could translate into maybe a LITTLE authority when coaching a girl’s soccer team.
So tell me what you think makes good character development (or don’t. I don’t care either way).