Two For the Price Of One

I took my friend’s daughter to see Jack The Giant Slayer the other day, and it got me thinking – what’s with this sudden tendency to have secondary heroes in fantasy movies?

Jack The Giant Slayer has both Jack himself – the typical fairy tale hero, the ordinary lad who must rise to the chance of adventure – and Elmont, the heroic bodyguard/warrior who helps to protect Princess Isabelle. Snow White And The Huntsmen, very much in the same genre, has both the Huntsman and a prince who’s set up as a childhood love interest. Both are instrumental to the story in different ways.

And though it sits in a very different genre, the movie that’s responsible for all these teen-audience, romantically-tinged movies being made is Twilight – and there again, we have two male leads locked in a romantic triangle with the female lead.

Now, I’m all in favour of strong secondary characters. The more striking, attractive and compelling your supporting characters are, the better your movie will be.

But I’m also a fan of the idea of ‘character function’: the idea that each character plays a role within the story, in the same way every mechanic in a Formula One pitstop has a specific job to perform, all of which make up a whole event. Depending on the complexity of your story, you can define those functions in broad terms (love interest, villain, reflection/sidekick), or in more specific terms – for example, all the characters in a heist movie are thieves, but they all have a different role to play in the theft and in the movie.

The golden rule is: no two characters in your movie should be doing the same thing within the plot structure, even if they’re very different characters.

For an example of what happens when you ignore this, take a look at the Christopher Ecceleston season of Doctor Who. Much fantastic stuff in this season, of course: but once Captain Jack Harkness comes aboard the Tardis, something starts to feel amiss. Which is weird, because he and the Doctor are very different characters… Until you realize they both have the same character function:  “slightly madcap alien with advanced knowledge and technology”. Every time the writers come up with a plot twist, Jack and the Doctor are likely to react to it in the same way – and that’s the death of drama. They’re both fascinating characters, but they don’t belong in the same show.

Snow White and The Huntsman suffers from this problem, and has to resolve it by effectively shunting its Prince Charming character out of the plot – minimizing his screen time and his role in the story. Jack The Giant Slayer fares slightly better, partly by making Elmont a seasoned, near-indestructible warrior and Jack a simple farm boy, which allows for differences in both their actions and their reactions. But as Jack begins to grow into the warrior role, the story inevitably starts to suffer from too many heroes.

So why are writers, producers and directors allowing this to happen? I still don’t know. The moral of this particular fairy tale is: too many heroes spoil the broth…

One comment on “Two For the Price Of One

  1. Shaula Evans says:

    Great post, Debbie.

    I’m a fan of romantic triangles, too (in writing!–they’re horrible in real life, which is precisely why they’re great for writing), especially if they’re explored or resolved in interesting ways, but I want the functional hats the two competing characters are wearing to say more than “Love Interest A” and “Love Interest B”.

    I was watching a show the other day where I was impressed by the writing because it did just the opposite: when a primary character went through a transformation, the functional “hat” that he discarded was picked up by a secondary character (Inspector George Gently: Gently in the Cathedral, Season 5, Episode 4).

    > So why are writers, producers and directors allowing this to happen? I still don’t know. The moral of this particular fairy tale is: too many heroes spoil the broth…

    Very interesting question.

    I do tend to think of this in terms of “hats”, and for me another moral is that no two characters can wear the same hat at the same time.

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