Beware The Fridge Magnet

(with thanks to @abigailb, who came up with the term)

Thank you for coming, everyone! I see we have a good range of female characters here tonight – girlfriends of superheroes, wives and daughters from action movies, and secondary characters from television shows…

Now, we’re all very much aware of the primary danger to all of you – the constant threat of “fridging”, the killing of love interests (invariably female) to motivate the hero to revenge. You’d think villains would have realized this course of action invariably leads to their downfall, and stopped, by now, but I guess if they were smart they wouldn’t be villains…

Anyway, tonight we’ll be talking about a disturbing element of that threat that has recently been identified – the fridge magnet.

That’s right – the hero whose every partner, casual hook-up, or anyone he so much as flirts with, ends up dead.

For many years, the primary danger came from James Bond, and we were at least aware of that – but with the rise of movie franchises, and the increased danger presented by a hero appearing in more than one movie, the danger is now everywhere. From Wolverine to Dominic Torretto, the fridge magnet could now be any male lead in any genre of film.

How can you identify a fridge magnet?

He may be a character whose worth is defined, partly or wholly, by the physical things he possesses – and a woman is just another thing to be possessed, used up, and thrown away.

Or he may be a character whom the audience expect to remain miserable and/or damaged, for whom yet another dead female is a simple shorthand to illustrate that misery.

And having identified him, what can you do?

Go to the writer. Remember, only the writer of your film or television show can save you – by redeveloping your hero and you into characters who have a complex, interesting and ongoing relationship. This will satisfy the audience, filling them with emotions and dilemmas, without resorting to the crude, simplistic device of yet another death.

The writer has doomed you to this fate – but they can save you, and become a better writer in the process…

Change It Up

So, one of the things I decided to do to my new script was to change the genders of the main characters –  protagonist and mentor-antagonist – to female. Because more decent roles for women are good, because anything that makes a genre script stand out from the pile is good, and because who doesn’t want Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Lawrence (for example) in their movie?

What I hadn’t anticipated was how thoroughly it would refresh and reinvigorate the other characters. Every character in this script has become more interesting and more nuanced, because they’re now working with a team leader who’s not the usual jaded middle-aged male. And that’s without even resorting to the cliched “woman in a man’s world” stuff. The way the protagonist relates to her new workmates and friends is subtly different. The fractious relationship of authority, friendship and betrayal between the two characters feels much more fresh and original too.

And this is why people keep asking for more female characters, more people of colour, more gay and lesbian characters, more of anyone who isn’t a straight white middle-class male. It’s because audiences crave new experiences – and changing up your characters also changes up your story, delivering novelty, interest and surprises on all levels.

So if your idea feels a little cliched, a little samey – change your characters!

More Than One Kind Of Hero

For a summer blockbuster about giant mechs fighting rampaging monsters, Pacific Rim is an extraordinarily unconventional film. One of the areas in which this shows up most clearly is in the depiction of its characters.

Some very serious spoilers, obviously. Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

To begin with, Pacific Rim is a true dual-protagonist film, a rarity in Hollywood and near-unheard of in the realm of summer tentpoles.

Fittingly for a movie about people learning to share their hearts and minds in the Drift, Raleigh and Mako are absolutely equal as protagonists.

They each have an inciting incident; Raleigh’s in the pre-credits sequence, and Mako’s (in keeping with the film’s unconventional treatment of time) revealed in flashback around the middle of the film. They each have a personal antagonist; for Raleigh, jealous, insecure rival Chuck Hansen, and for Mako, Stacker Pentecost, whose desire to protect her makes him as much an antagonist to be overcome as a mentor to be heeded. They each carry an emotional burden they must cast aside; Mako must master her need for revenge, and Raleigh, his guilt for his brother’s death.

But even more interesting that their shared centrality is the question: what kind of heroes are they?

For everyone who has hailed Mako as a feminist hero, someone else has criticised her for being passive, for being weak. For not conforming to the Hollywood hero stereotype: a self-sufficient hero who is stubbornly individual, rejects rules and advice, does their own thing, and often, does something apparently unwise and yet is proved right as conventional wisdom turns out to be wrong.

But Raleigh Beckett isn’t that kind of hero either. Add writer Travis Beacham’s response on Twitter on this subject:  “I will concede that [Mako] doesn’t act like a decisive alpha male action hero. I don’t much like that guy.”  and it’s clear that this is a very deliberate decision.

Pacific Rim has rejected the individualist hero pattern, and is presenting us with a new type of hero – a hero for who personal surrender is the way to shared strength, and for whom the whole is far more important than the individual.

Consider the scene where Mako proves herself a worthy partner for Raleigh in combat, but Pentecost refuses to pair them up. Was I the only one expecting Raleigh to threaten to walk out of the program if Pentecost doesn’t relent? I doubt it. That’s what the individualist hero does; defies authority and imposes his own will on the world.

It’s not what Raleigh or Mako do here, though. Each passionately argues their case – and then accepts Pentecost’s decision. When Raleigh does privately challenge the notion of obedience, Mako sets him straight: “it’s not obedience, it’s respect.” And even as she closes the door in his face, you get a sense that he understands that.

He certainly should. This is not a world that rewards individualism. It’s the Beckett boys’ decision to disobey orders that leads to Yancy’s death, and later in Hong Kong, rushing to assist their colleagues in defiance of Pentecost’s strategy almost does for the Hansens. Even Newt’s solo attempt to Drift with the kaiju brain risks his life and obtains only snatches of useful intelligence. Only when Gottlieb joins him, sharing the neutral load –  because “That’s what the jaeger pilots do” –  can the Drift be entirely successful and the vital information obtained.

Going back to Raleigh: later, with his perfect Drift partner grounded, he does slip into the individualist hero paradigm and challenge Pentecost – only to be cut down as the senior officer asserts not so much his authority as his responsibility. He is the “fixed point” in the crumbling world of the Shatterdome, and Raleigh needs that stability as much as anyone. Pentecost has sacrificed endlessly for others; he’s asking Raleigh to make similar sacrifices. To surrender ego for the greater good. And that’s what Raleigh does.

It’s hard to imagine this complex emotional exchange happening in any movie with an individualist protagonist, isn’t it?

Mako, of course, knows a lot about sacrifice. She’s been waiting her whole life for her chance to pilot a jaeger. I read her obedience to Pentecost as both respect and confidence. She knows that her day will come, when the time is right.

When machismo does rear it’s ugly head, it’s subverted. With Chuck right in their face, trying to provoke a fight, they fail to defend their own egos: Mako responds only when Raleigh is insulted, and he’s finally provoked to violence by an insult to her. Personal ego has no place in their increasingly anti-individual world.

Even as the double event wipes out jaeger teams, Raleigh and Mako don’t muscle in to save the day. The John McClaines and Jack Bauers of this world would have marched down to the hangar and set off into the fray, without orders or in defiance of them. But rather than putting themselves forward as heroes, Raleigh and Mako wait until they’re sure they have something to offer the situation. As it turns out, that’s not even them – it’s Gipsy Danger herself, the one jaeger immune to the new weapon.

Even in the final assault on the Drift, it’s hard to pick out the kind of individual hero moment you would expect from a typical Hollywood narrative. The sealing of the breach is a group effort, and, with the possible exception of Raleigh sacrificing his oxygen supply, no single act achieves victory. Even the sacrifice of Chuck and Pentecost is – of necessity – a joint decision between two Drift partners.

For a Hollywood movie, this is a whole new world of characterization – and I love it. It’s long past time for new explorations of what it means to be a hero.

But I suppose we must proceed with caution. Although Pacific Rim isn’t the ‘flop’ headline writers would have you believe, it has underperformed in English-speaking territories. If I had to venture one explanation for that, I’d probably guess it’s the unconventional character choices being misread as weakness by an audience with a narrow sense of what’s “heroic”. It’s tough to be the first person to break the rules…

Hero Proximity Syndrome

We interrupt this blog to bring you an urgent public health message. Is a female character you care about suffering from… Hero Proximity Syndrome?

This relatively common but rarely discussed syndrome afflicts female characters, particularly Attractors (commonly known as ‘love interests’), in a variety of movies, but is endemic in action, adventure, crime and SF/ fantasy narratives.

It can be readily diagnosed, even by the amateur writer, by asking yourself one simple question: does your female attractor abruptly lose her ability to take care of herself in dangerous situations when the hero of the story is also in that scene?

Note that a female character who has no capacity to defend herself, think and plan for her own safety, and perform simple life tasks even when the hero isn’t around isn’t suffering from HPS, but from the far more dangerous Useless Female Syndrome. In this case, the prognosis is often terminal – not necessarily for the character, but certainly for the chances of your movie being liked by female audience members.

No, a diagnosis of Hero Proximity Syndrome should only be reached when the character shows some ability to defend herself and act logically when she’s on her own, only to become dependent and lacking in initiative the moment the hero arrives.

But what can be done to defeat this terrible affliction?  After all, no character can be entirely independent of the hero, or your movie risks developing the even more dangerous disorder, Weak Hero Syndrome. However, there are some simple actions you can take to manage the situation and alleviate the symptoms.

Firstly, you can have your female character take some logical, appropriate action which fails through no fault of her own. Faced with kidnappers, she threatens them with the family hunting rifle – which unknown to her, they’ve already found and unloaded. To find her child, she activates the location app on the child’s phone – but the kid lent it to his best buddy, who’s innocently going about his business with no idea he’s misleading the police chase. She still needs the hero’s help, but at least she’s doing her best.

Secondly, the hero and the attractor can have skills, backgrounds and contacts that both contribute to solving the problem the movie poses. There’s a nuclear bomb to find: she’s a cop, he’s a physicist. A fearsome predator terrorizes a village; he’s a skillful hunter, she’s a cryptozoologist. They both need each other in order to succeed.

Thirdly, have the female character participate in her own rescue. It’s fair enough that’s too scared to resist when five armed men storm into her house – but when the hero appears and draws their fire, have her kick the nearest intruder in the balls. There’s a difference between “needing some help” and “helpless”.

By following these simple rules, we can eliminate Hero Proximity Syndrome in our lifetimes. Thank you for listening.

The Hero’s Journey & The Virgin’s Promise

After some fascinating discussions on Scott Myer’s blog, Go Into The Story, a few weeks back, I invested in a copy of The Virgin’s Promise by Kim Hudson.  I know, I know, it sounds like a Mills & Boon novel, but here’s the subtitle: Writing Stories of Feminine Creative, Spiritual and Sexual Awakening.

So here’s a first for Never Get Off The Bus: a book review!

Essentially, Hudson’s thesis is that there’s a broadly feminine equivalent to the famous Hero’s Journey model of storytelling. This doesn’t necessarily mean stories with female central characters – she mentions many male characters who fit the model –  or even stories aimed at a female audience.  It’s just a model that values traditionally ‘female’ story arenas, values and preoccupations.

If the Hero’s Journey is myth, the Virgin’s Promise is fairy tale: where the Hero goes out into a strange world to prove himself and conquer evil for the good of the community, the Virgin stays home, discovers a talent or facet of her personality that she’s been keeping hidden because of social pressure, and begins to develop it in secret.  Eventually her secret comes out, and traditional, rule-bound society is rocked by this threat – but ultimately the Virgin wins them over, and society changes to accommodate the new, more powerful and fulfilled her.

The films she quotes as adhering to the Virgin’s Promise model include Billy Elliot, Bend It Like Beckham, The Wedding Crashers, Brokeback Mountain, Maid In Manhattan and Sister Act.  She provides step by step breakdowns of the films, detailing how they fit into the thirteen-part structure, and the opening of the book digs into Jungian theory and details twelve archetypes that male and female characters fit into at various stages of their lives, and what their typical stories are, which is interesting stuff in itself.

Is it useful?  Yes, very.  To me, The Virgin’s Promise feels like a model that would work tremendously well for “character-driven” films without a strong plot arc, such as indie dramas or coming of age movies (Hudson discusses coming of age stories in the book, in fact).  It focuses on self-discovery rather than external achievements, emphasizes personal relationships as both a strength and a weakness for the central character, and promotes self-esteem and honesty as the key to changing the world.

It would be fair to say that, for a female writer, I write very “male” stories, in terms of genre, tone and character – and I can still see myself weaving elements of this system into my work from now on.  I can particularly see the value of it for a secondary character (male or female).  While the Protagonist proceeds on the Hero’s Journey, a Sidekick or Attractor character might be exploring the Virgin’s Promise, learning and changing in ways that compliment the Protagonist’s story without repeating beats or interfering with the Hero’s outwards and inwards arc of change.

The book itself does feel a little padded: Part Two, ostensibly a guide to screenwriting, is basic three-act structure with the Virgin’s Promise rehashed throughout it, and Hudson also spends a chapter on the Hero’s Journey itself, which anyone reading this should already be familiar with.  (Though I suppose if you’re not, that makes this book a “two for the price of one”!)

Despite that, I heartily recommend this for anyone who’s mastered all the basic systems and models and is looking for something a little different, and especially for anyone interested in feminist or female-centered stories.