MINDY NEWELL: Character
What goes into making a memorable character for a story?
According to Lawrence Block, author of over one hundred novels and recipient of the Grand Master award from the Mystery Writers of America, they must be three things: plausible, sympathetic, and original.
I think that’s a damn good definition of what makes a character real. Except that I think Mr. Block used the wrong word. It’s not “sympathetic,” it’s “empathetic.” Now, sympathy and empathy are kissing cousins, but sympathy, I think, allows the individual to separate from the character just a bit, to feel for the character while still allowing for some separation – six degrees of separation, if you will. Empathy, on the other hand causes the individual to feel with the character– it’s the recognition of self in someone else.
Without that recognition, without that empathy, the character is in danger of falling flat, of eliciting a “who cares?” response. The great characters are empathetic – Scarlett O’Hara of Gone With The Wind, the Joad family (especially Tom and “Ma”) of The Grapes Of Wrath, Vito and Michael Coreleone of The Godfather, Caleb Trask of East Of Eden, Joe and Kirsten Clay of Days Of Wine And Roses, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, King George VI in The King’s Speech.
In comics there is Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and his sister, Death, the X-Men’s Max Eisenhardt/Erik Lensherr/Magneto and Jean Grey/Phoenix (Dark and “Light”), Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Mary Jane Watson, Selina Kyle/Catwoman, and Sue Storm/The Invisible Woman. Of course there are more; I just chose those characters that appeared at the top of my head as I write this. You will have your own characters that engender empathy.
Originality is hard. The history of storytelling begins when our ancestors first sat down around the fire and told tales to ward off the dark night. The history of storytelling is ripe with heroes and villains, love and betrayal, valor and cowardice. Originality, I think, comprises the total picture. As Block says in his book Telling Lies For Fun And Profit, “it’s not the quirks that make an enduring character, but the essential personality which the quirks highlight.” In other words, and like I said, it’s the whole picture, the complete character or individual that makes him or her an original.
Norma Desmond’s quirk is her inability to adjust to age and talkies, to realize and accept that time, and Hollywood, has marched on. Tom Joad’s quirk is his inability to accept injustice, even if it causes him to murder, which he sees as no injustice. Vito Coreleone’s quirk is to see the world as an “us against them” scenario, to nurture the family while attacking the world. Michael Coreleone’s quirk is to talk of love and loyalty to the family while he destroys it. Swamp Thing’s quirk is that he is a plant trying to be a man. And Death loves life, even as she takes it away.
Plausibility allows the reader to suspend his or her disbelief, to accept that the actions of the character are true and real and acceptable. Now in comics, of course, plausibility is a two-edged sword. Of course we know that nobody can fly; nobody is invulnerable or runs at supersonic speed; no one can turn invisible or survive the explosion of a gamma bomb (except Bruce Banner, of course!) But as readers of superhero comics, we willingly suspend our disbelief, the implausibility of the character, before we even open the book. Why? Well, I think it has something to do with the capturing of our imagination, the “what if?” factor that I wrote about several months ago. But I also think that the other factors mentioned above play a role in our acceptance of Superman or Rogue. Empathy: “I get it. I know what it’s like to be Rogue, to be unable to really touch someone, to really get close to someone.” Or “Yeah, sometimes I feel like Kal-El, a stranger in a strange land.”
I watched Game Change on HBO. The movie is based on Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, by John Heilemann of New York magazine and Mark Halperin of Time. Both men are seasoned politically analysts, and their book, which was released on January 11, 2010, is an inside look at the Presidential campaign of 2008. The HBO movie focuses on Palin, played by Julianne Moore, from the moment the McCain campaign decides to ask her to be his running mate to Obama’s running mate.
The movie is riveting. Moore buries herself completely into the role, and I’m guaranteeing right now that she wins an Emmy for her performance. Sarah Palin is, without a doubt, love her or hate her, an original. She is empathetic – and sympathetic – as she works to maintain her sense of self and, love them or hate them, her own beliefs against the McCain and Republican political machinery.
But is she plausible? The movie shows that, as far as being capable of being “one heartbeat away from the Presidency,” Palin was an implausible candidate. But don’t tell that to the huge – and I mean huge – groundswell of love and support she engendered.
Yesterday afternoon I went to my local comic book store, Vector Comics, to pick up my haul. Joe and Tina, the terrific and wonderful owners of the shop, were busy with other customers, so I browsed through the stacks to see if anything not on my list that caught my interest. (Actually, almost everything piques my appetite, and if I allowed myself to buy everything I want, I couldn’t pay the rent!)
Know what I found? The Sarah Palin comic from Bluewater Comics.
What a character!
TUESDAY: Michael Davis
But is she plausible? The movie shows that, as far as being capable of being “one heartbeat away from the Presidency,” Palin was an implausible candidate.
Yes, that is absolutely what the movie shows. I’ve also seen a movie that shows two black actors playing FBI agents who disguise themselves as white women and pass. Movies show a lot of things that aren’t plausible.
I can list the errors and out-right lies of “Game Change” if you’d like but I suspect that would be a futile endeavor. I will say that McCain did not lose the election because of Palin. Palin lost the election because of McCain.
“I will say that McCain did not lose the election because of Palin. Palin lost the election because of McCain.”
That’s a VERY interesting thought, George. I’d love to hear more of your reasoning!
Well, McCain was behind in the polls by about 7 points until Palin’s convention speech. Up until her presence on the ticket many Republicans were ambivalent about McCain. They certainly appreciated his service to the country, but he was not a 180° option from Obama’s stated objectives and support for him was soft. After Palin’s speech, McCain/Palin were up by about 4 points. an 11 point swing. That may have held up, (no way to know for sure now), but McCain kind up screwed up by halting his campaign when the banking crisis hit as if he had some important plan to implement, but in reality did not. George Bush’s memoir, “Decision Points”, made quite a distinct point about that.
Also Palin was targeted with lies about the maternity of her baby, lies about the reason her son joined the military; she was accused of banning books that hadn’t even been published when she was supposed to have done it, Trooper-gate became a bigger story than it deserved and it was something she was cleared of before the election.
Most of the summer, the battle between Hillary and Obama was great theater. Once Obama nailed down the nomination, most of the media and the blogosphere did not want that story to end with a whimper. The first black president was what they wanted and for that to just dissipate in favor of yet another old white guy was not acceptable. Palin had to be destroyed because she was making his election a reality.
When Game Change was first put into production, most thought Palin would run in 2012 and this movie, scheduled for the first weekend after Super Tuesday, would hurt her. Her decision to not run kind of made that effort a bit ironic. In the book this movie is based on, Palin’s name does not appear until page 351. There were barely 100 pages left in the book, yet the movie is entirely about her.
Mindy, your statement: She is empathetic – and sympathetic – as she works to maintain her sense of self and, love them or hate them, her own beliefs against the McCain and Republican political machinery.; is a lot more fair than most of what I read about her. People forget, or don’t want to acknowledge, that she wasn’t all that popular with the established Republican party in Alaska. Her popularity with the voters was incredible but the party bosses were less sanguine. That is still the case today.
George, I never believed that bullshit about her son. I didn’t care that her daughter was pregnant. I admired her son for being in the military. What I care about when it comes to politics is the knowledge and capability that the candidate has, ESPECIALLY when it comes to international affairs, of which I believe most of the people in the country are completely ignorant, either because they’re too lazy to care or because they think that we can go back to an isolationist position.
McCain, like Romney is now, was so desperate to be President that he reversed positions and would say anything to please the extremist nuts of the Republican party. THAT hurt him more than anything else. Probably his finest hour during the campaign was when he shut down that crazy lady at the Town Hall who insisted that Obama was an Arab, a Muslim, and a terrorist. THOUGH EVEN THAT, IMO, WAS NOT A STRONG ENOUGH “REFUTIATION.” As leader of the party at that time, he should have made a public statement about the hatred spilling of the mouths of racist bastards and ignorant Christians who don’t even know that most of the Founding Fathers were products of an age that put humanism over any organized religion.
And don’t count her out, yet. George.
I agree that when McCain said “He’s a decent, family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with.” was the high point of the campaign.
And don’t count her out, yet. George.
Rest assured, I’m not. If you get a chance, take a look at “Undefeated” the Palin documentary. It was on the Reelz channel last Sunday and will be repeated on 3/25. Yes, it is unapologetically pro-Palin, so that’s, you know, unique.