During the past week I watched all three of the Lord of the Rings movies. I still like them.
It makes Jackson’s recent offering, King Kong, look rather shallow in comparison. There is no excuse for the unforgivably-long pre-Skull Island sequence, which is supposed to establish characters and motives, but only tires us. King Kong is a B-movie. It’s a beauty-and-the-beast story, where a big ape falls in love with an incompatible mate. It’s equal parts action and melodrama. Or at least, it should be. The CGI Kong is the true hero of Jackon’s movie, and once he’s on-camera, ripping apart dinosaurs or bonding with Ann Darrow, then the movie steers a true course. Unfortunately, it takes a hour to get to the good bits.
Watching Lord of the Rings made me ponder upon the subject of world-building and characters. Several times, while watching Jackon’s films, I found myself considering the life of a minor character glimpsed in the film, or wondering about how the citizens of Minas Tirith coped with the invasion of their city, or who took over the rulership of Rohan when Eowyn rode off to battle.
In other words, I was walking around in Tolkien’s world in my mind. It had an existence outside of the screen (and of course, the books). This is a marvellous sign. It means that the world and the characters of the film have a life outside of their creation. This is why popular TV shows or movies have novel (or comic) tie-ins that spin out new stories for their characters. Once we engage with characters we want to know more about them. I guess it’s what prompts people to create FanFic – to write stories they’ve imagined but no one else has told.
I could easily picture a life for Rick outside of Casablanca, for instance: his trip from Paris with Sam in tow, evading Nazis, and the high-stakes baccarat game during which he won the deed to the café in Casablanca. In my imagination Harry Lime runs cons and outwits cops in the black-and-white streets of post-war Venice (quite extraordinary when you consider that Lime is only on-screen for 10 minutes in The Third Man). I can see Ripley eking out an existence by learning to use the mechanical loaders on the Earth cargo docks, tough and chain-smoking, but twitchy-nervous so that people avoid her.
In the reverse situation, I cannot imagine a life for Rose Da Silva from Silent Hill. She does not exist outside of the film; she barely exists inside of it.
How complex and fully-realised characters are evoked is an important subject for writers to ponder. One point that strikes me is that everyone in the world has ordinary concerns: such as paying rent, having a social life, dealing with family, negotiating relationships, etc.
The Buddha is in the details, as they say. If those touches of reality, of pragmatic issues, are not visible in your character’s life then s/he will not appear real. This is even more important when you work within genre: science fiction, fantasy, horror. Even if the world and the setting is unusual, there needs to be a grounding of the familiar, of the ordinary. So much of life is filling in the right box and standing in line.
Without these signifiers the character is a shadow puppet that capers against a white screen.