Consistency vs. Change: Some Thoughts on Character

 

I am currently taking a writing class (specifically, a writing class focusing on creating a 30 minute comedy pilot script) and while we've only met a few times, I am already thinking about writing in a different way. I'm finding myself looking at TV differently, sure, but I'm also thinking about other forms of media, including comics, with a new understanding as well.

 

The thing about comedy on TV (and, I suspect, any long form story-telling format), is that it is truly all about character. The networks and the studios are not buying a comedy show because it's set in someone's cool apartment–they are buying a comedy show because that apartment is filled with memorable, engaging and, well, funny characters. The audience has to be so engaged with these characters so that they keep coming back, week after week, to watch them live their lives and, hopefully, watch a few commercials in the meantime.  

 

What I found interesting is that there is this agreement between the producers of the show and the audience that, whenever you choose to watch this show, the characters will be pretty much as you expect them to be. You won't find too much deviation in terms of what the character is like–sure, he or she might be in a new relationship, or perhaps lose his or her's job–but the character basic sense of self pretty much tends to be the same, it's just the circumstances around him or her that change. I found this intriguing because I had always thought about stories in terms of how a character changes from the beginning of the story to the end, where the character not only achieves a goal or overcomes adversity, but something inside the character changes as well. He realizes that making a ton of money doesn't make you more happy; that, in the end, she really did need a scoundrel in her life; that kind of thing.  A change from the beginning of the story to the end–that was how I was thinking of characters.

 

Now, this is fine and good when it comes to feature films, where you have 90-120 minutes to spend with your main character and you expect some kind of personal revelation in addition to addressing the challenges presented toward the antagonist, but when it comes to other kinds of story telling, this is definitely not the case.  In a thirty minute comedy series, for example, yes, the character can have a realization and a shift in his attitudes, but only in the pilot. From the second episode on, the character needs to stay the same. The main character gets kicked out of his place by his wife and lives with his best friend, who, of course, is a total slob. From that point on, you have The Odd Couple.  

 

I would argue that this is true in the world of comics, as well.  Once a character gets going, he or she for the most part stays consistent, bar some kind of fundamental changeover, which usually is given a bright spot light in the form of a crossover, miniseries and suitably dramatic advertising campaign.  We're watching this happen right now in Daredevil, with the Shadowland mini-event (or whatever it is).

 

This is not the same as a status quo change, like Superman: World of New Krypton or the death/return of Bruce Wayne.  With Superman, Kal-el pretty much stayed the same kind of person, he just had a shift in priorities and employment.  With Bruce, well, he's just not around, giving Dick and Damian some time to make things work.  We're watching the return of Barry Allen in The Flash, but, so far, the series has not really given us a chance to see too much of Barry's personality, we've just been hanging out with him for a day or so dealing with these time traveling rogues. He was really moody in The Flash: Rebirth, but he seems to have lightened up a bit in the ongoing series. We'll see.

 

How editors balance the tasks of keeping a character's personality consistent while providing writers with enough leeway to create compelling stories has to be one of the most difficult (and rewarding) aspects of the job. Obviously, you don't want the characters to be monoliths, but, in a way, you do, you know? The consistency of tone is so valuable—you want new readers to understand what is important to a character, what their attitudes are, etc, while making sure that readers who come back to the character are coming back to someone familiar, like an old friend.

 

Peter Parker, for me, is one of the best examples of a character remaining true to his core tenets and principles as he overcomes his personal and professional short comings, issue after issue, year after year.  What is amazing about this is that one's sense of Peter Parker–his loves, his sense of optimism (balanced with sarcasm), his ongoing frustrations with time management, his bouts with frustration–are so complete, yet many of us still can't get enough of him; we just keep coming back for more.  Matt Murdock was another character that I couldn't stop reading about, if for entirely different reasons (was he ever happy?).  Of course, Daredevil is beginning a major shift, which I find both relieving and frustrating at the same time. I actually dropped Daredevil for awhile–many of us did, we just got tired of it all–and have returned with the Shadowland story. I will finish Shadowland but I think I will be off Daredevil for awhile until things get back to some semblance of normalcy in terms of character, not of plot.

 

Making any of kind of major generalizations in terms of publishers is probably not the smartest thing to do, but I am going to dip my toe into the water anyway.  When I think about Marvel characters, there's a sense of dynamism that is really intriguing to me.  Yes, they remain consistent within certain guidelines, but within those guidelines, there are many Marvel characters that enjoy rich personal and emotional lives, that keep the stories fresh beyond the "villain of the month" variety. I think about the personal lives of Luke Cage, Danny Rand, Hank Pym…there's just a lot going on there. These characters seem more like real people to me, and I wonder if it's because of something else I am learning about comedy writing–many of the Marvel characters have lots and lots of flaws.  

It's the flaws, not the strengths, that make characters so interesting.  Yes, they might don a costume and save a damsel in distress, but it is watching characters overcome their own shortcomings that make for stories that resonate with audiences. On the TV side of things, you don't watch Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm because he's good at his job, you watch him because it's funny to see so many deal with his idiosyncrasies and manic behavior!  Before Daredevil got just too dreary to read, Matt Murdock struggles made me need to know what happened next because his situation was so dire. 

 

When I think about DC I think about heroes. I think about these paragons of good, who fight evil and make the world safe. I don't think, for the most part, about people just trying to do their best in the world. I mean, even one of my favorite characters, Clark Kent…I rarely get a sense of his trying to make ends meet, you know?  Especially when compared to Peter Parker, who (usually) works in the same newspaper industry.  As much as I love Bruce Wayne, I don't really relate to him the same way I relate to Tony Stark.  Yes, I know Bruce is screwed up because his parents died, but after seeing friends and loved ones struggle with alcoholism and seeing their worlds fall apart, I empathize more with Tony. There are exceptions, to be sure–I have really gotten to know Kara (Power Girl) over the past year–she's just been made so much more approachable and fun thanks to how she deals with her stresses and frustrations, not only as a hero but also in her private life. I just relate to her in a way that I don't with most DC heroes, perhaps because the character flaws in some DC heroes tend to be reactions to epic occurrences (parents killed, home planet destroyed, etc, etc) and not so much grounded in "normal" life. 

 

DC's heroes, by and large, also seem to have less of a sense of humor than most of the Marvel characters. Not, like, making jokes all the time, but the characters often have a sense of humor about the challenges they are facing that kind of thing.  I just…I don't see that as often with DC's characters–which is interesting. Not that this is bad or anything, it's just as I think about characters for my show, when I think about the characters I enjoy, the characters that I am drawn to tend to be struggling a bit more to be heroes, that the great responsibility to protect those who deserve it most wears on them–the cape, the cowl, the uniform…these are not roles that they always fit into easily.  I remember when Clark was arguing with Dick in that issue of Superman/Batman–that Batman was not Bruce Wayne's alter ego, Bruce Wayne was Batman's alter ego.  With some iconic heroes, being a hero is really what the character is all about, with others, the struggle to be heroic is what makes the character so memorable.

 

Of course, there are all kinds of characters in comics that deserve a longer discussion, with a variety of folks that I identify with and care for (Matty Roth in DMZ, Yorick in Y: The Last Man) and it is interesting to see that, yes, indeed, these characters do change as the stories progress because they don't have the weighty responsibility of being a worldwide marketing tool for major corporations.  So, when it comes to these lesser known characters, the rules relax a bit, because these long form stories have a definite beginning, middle and end, and requires the characters to change to make the stories work. But for ongoing titles, with few exceptions, the characters we have grown up with are pretty much the same ones we spend our dollars on now–which is not a bad thing, if the writers and editors are working together to make sure that the stories are compelling.

 

Our relationships with our favorite characters are funny things. I admit it, I sometimes wish Peter Parker would get his act together and not be so broke all the time, so stressed out all the time.  But a fully together, super confident Peter Parker that had everything all figured out would be kind of boring after a few issues, you know?  I remember during Comic-Con that the Spider-Man folks were talking about Peter actually succeeding at his job and all that, but so far, I haven't seen it play out in the books. And sure, for awhile, it could be fun, but I strongly doubt that Peter will stay that way.  It's like watching Charlie Brown actually kick the football–it's just not right.

 

While this consistency in character might sound, on the surface, a bit boring (who wants to read about a character that never changes?), I think this is actually a major reason why so many people keep coming back to comics.  Our lives are moving faster, our problems more myriad and complex–it's nice to have something that you can turn to that is familiar, that no matter how frustrating your day might have been, that Murdock's day is going to be worse.  Thankfully, we have tons of other comics that feature different kinds of characters and stories where the characters do change, so there is definitely value in variety, which is another reason why comic book stores are such fantastic places.  You get all kinds of stories in a single visit.

 

So what do you think about all of this? What characters do you keep coming back to, despite (or because of) their flaws?  Which characters have frustrated you thanks to inconsistent characterization or other problems? Have you ever seen a character change so much that you dropped the book (or started picking it up)?  As I continue to work on characters for my TV series, I would be very curious to see what you think!

 

See ya next week!


 


Mike Romo is an actor in LA who likes to shop for kittens. You can reach him via email but you might have fun following him on twitter, too.

Comments

  1. I majored in Writing, and one of the most important things I ever learned was that when you write a story, you are writing about the most interesting or crucial thing that has ever happened to a character.  It’s probably a bit easier on ensemble books, where you can focus on Quicksilver one month, Layla Miller another, but on Spider-Man, everything that happens to him has to be treated as the most interesting thing that will ever happen…that’s part of what makes these creators so amazing, that they can keep doing that and (mostly) succeed, while never altering the characters beyond the comfort zone of the majority of readers. 

    If I think about Spider-Man storylines that I have read, though, most of them are more fun and entertaining than they are powerful.  Some are downright forgettable, just little Spider-Man adventures against random foes, cute lines being tossed out, no resonance or impact.  And that’s not a complaint; I read Spider-Man, I enjoy Spider-Man, but it’s rarely been a book that hits me all that hard or leaves me with the feeling I’ve experienced something I’ll carry with me forever.

    But I think of Judd Winick’s work on Green Arrow for example, and I feel like I saw that character change and grow and break and come out the other side a much different person over the course of those years.  I know he didn’t, really, the basics are the same, the character is recognizably the same…but Winick made the stories feel so huge and real, and he carried forth all the threads and made the ripples felt by Ollie so genuinely that I believed I was reading the most important moments and events of Oliver Queen’s life, not "just another Green Arrow story."

  2. I had this discussion with my LCS guy about Superman and his limitations. When looked at from an outsider perspective Superman is a silly character. His disguise is dumb…glasses and combed hair..really? His costume his super silly….powder blue underoos and a red cape and boots…Seriously? And the fact that its always on under his clothes…no way. Do we both love Superman?  YUP. By all logical perspectives, Superman’s design should have been modernized and updated years ago, but they can’t/won’t/shouldn’t. 

    He is what he is, and thats why we love him, and thats part of our theory why he’s so hard to translate to film…difficult to take seriously flying around in those underroos.  

  3. @wallythegreenmonster: Of all the super hero costumes translated to film, Superman’s has been the most faithful and the general public seems to have no problem taking him seriously.

  4. Sometimes I need motivation work on my own writing projects, improving on my approach and skills.  This totally did the trick for today.  Thanks Mike!

  5. @conor–i dunno if my point came across right. I mean I love the Character..but i still think he’s kinda silly based on what makes him so great. His iconic legend helps me suspend my disbelief and like him more. If you put the same character in front of me with a different name, i’d totally brush him off

     Does that make sense? Probably not. 

    I do agree with you that he is the most faithful comic character translated to movies.  

  6. @wallythegreenmonster: No, that makes total sense, and I agree 100%. The context of SUpermanand what he represents to, just about every one in the modern world, influences how people look at him.

    Back to Mike’s article – the only poitn I’d see counteracting the "character never change" idea in comics is the different ages – Golden, Silver, Bronze, Modern, etc. Some characters went through some radical personality shifts through the different ages (though most staying true to their core, which is probably Mike’s point also). 

  7. Mike i think you really hit the nail on the head with your analysis of DC characters, and this goes towards what @Wally and @Connor discussed. Superman is really the top of the pyramid when it comes to superheros; the one the influenced them all. the rest of DC are results from that, and marvel is a result of DC, and so and so on. As much as i would like to see Superman "Modernized," i don’t think he can, at least not to much. His costume is iconic and too recognizable for it to change, at least in the main stream. It reminds me of Kevin Smith’s Dogman and Buddy Christ; can you really change that image? But there are lots of Superman analogues out there, Sentry, Irredemable and a host of others. in those characters you see Superman through different lights, or even look to an Elseworld for this.

    and remember about characters and change, the more they change, the more they stay the same.

  8. Excellent post! I wrote a paper once about how we create myths in our times and talked about Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Sandman is the complete opposite of what you say here.  In my paper I pointed out that for the most part, superhero comics were really only about the origin story.  After that, the myth is made and it all stays the same and is really irrelevant to the myth.  That might be overstating it for those of us that actually read comics, but from an academic point of view, that’s how it is.  Superman’s relevance as a myth ends the minute he puts on the suit and accepts his role as a hero and ultimately, the rest are just details.  Sandman, and like you said, Y the Last Man, etc. are exceptions.  Sandman’s entire run is about Morpheus growing and changing in relation to his role.  And I think they are exceptions that only come about in more (relatively) recent times.  I think they are a reaction to the idea that the myths we have had for so long are unattainable and ultimately unrelatable.  I can never be anything like Bruce Wayne.  But, I can learn from Morpheus in Sandman as he struggles to understand humanity and really find humanity within himself. 

  9. @weaklyroll–the closest thing we see to a modernized Superman is the current Superboy with is black T shirt and jeans. I really like how they designed that character. 

  10. @Wally, Superboy is pretty close to a modernized version in regards to costume. must be nice to pull on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and go save the world.

    @nudebuddha i agree to an extent, though i agree that a lot of myth making can happen after the origin. in Joesph Campbell’s hero with 1000 faces he shows about three stages a hero goes through, origin just being one of them. Look at spider-man, as Mike has, and while he mostly has stayed the same after his origin, he has gone through events like the death of Gwen Stacey, i think that caused a major change for a long time about the way he htought about relationships.

  11. I agree with the article but I don’t think its being applied in exactly the same way in modern mainstream superhero comics.

    Take Doctor Who, my personal favourite example of serialized storytelling. The doctor never fundamentally changes but the adventures have continued to be enjoyed by views for years and they have never expected him to ever fundamentally change (as far as I know). However it is quite common for people to complain that the status quo always stays the same for our costumed comic characters.

    My theory for why this is the case is because the marketing in comic tries to tell you that each story will be a huge deal and change the character. We all know the big name characters will never fundamentally change but when each event is billed as a turning point in the character it can be frustrating when that rarely happens. One the other hand a trailer for a doctor who season is usually just some clips of the crazy stuff the Doctor is going to see.

    But then again its hard to make an annoucement at a comic convention like "Don’t work guys, Spidey will continue to fight colourful badguys will juggling work and relationships", "Comming next year! batman will solve some more crimes and punch some more pyschos!"

  12. This is EXACTLY why i don’t like DC! THey’re NONE of them relatable (to me atleast). And NOT all Marvel characters are, but its just a lot more common. As you explained… I love that both Peter Parker and Spider-Man are constantly defeated and beat down. But the weight of that responsibilty to carry on helping those who can’t help themselves remains and causes them to press on. It’s just a very familiar scenario because i’m a young married student with a daughter and balancing two jobs, 15 credit hours, watching baby and/or finding baby-sitters, is very taxing but i know that i can’t just give up, because i have a responsibility to my newly formed family. None of DC’s characters speak to me on any level other than, "hey i’m a super hero, i’ll handle this".

  13. Nice article. I agree that the balancing act is the most essential (and difficult) task that creators face the longer these characters are around. We want them to be challenged and pushed to their limits, but at the end of the day these folks are our familiars, and we want them to remain that way.

    I see what Mike’s saying about sense of humor in their everyday approach, but I think DC has plenty of lighthearted heroes. Off the top of my head I’d say Dick Grayson, Guy Gardner, Blue Beetle (Kord and Reyes), Power Girl, Deadshot, Wildcat, and Kid Flash all make an effort to keep things light on the battlefield. Humor is present in both universes. Typically the stakes are just higher in the DCU. Marvel has a lot of street-level, money grubbing crazies, whereas in the DCU the universe is collapsing every other day. Relax zombies. I’m not saying one is better than the other, both have their pros and cons. Just sticking up for my DC funnypeople.

  14. @WeaklyRoll,

    I think you can apply Campbell’s model, stage by stage, to most origin stories.  Here’s a good summary of the stages: http://www.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/smc/journey/ref/summary.html.

    I agree that on a grander scale, you can often keep re-applying Campbell’s stages to some characters as the serialized story grows in complexity, Spider-Man being one of them, especially with your example of Gwen Stacy.  However, if you just take Spider-Man’s origin tale itself, up until he accepts his role as the hero (for simplicity’s sake, let’s just go with the first Movie version) that’s all you need to know, really.  The myth itself, the basis of everything is made and all the stages of Campbell’s journey have been completed.  Now, when you come back and tell further stories, you are basically adding minor details, unless, a Death of Gwen Stacy comes along that changes who the character is.  Now you can interpret the Hero’s Journey over a longer story, but that doesn’t mean the origin itself has lost it’s importance or is somehow incomplete.  Overall, though, as with all literary analysis, it all comes down to interpretation.

  15. I think we need more stories that has a beginning and an end. Kinda like Y the last man. I enjoy stuff that has an end… same goes with tv series, the british don’t make as many season on tv seires. they don’t keep making a series until it runs to the ground.