The shadowy assassin pushed his hood back, revealing his scarred face.
“Who are you?” asked the frightened girl.
“That does not matter now,” said the assassin solemnly. “I am here to perform awesome stunts and say mysterious things.”
The girl appeared out of nowhere, blasting the two mercenaries away with a single roundhouse kick to the head. “Get on the motorcycle, loser,” she said.
“But who are you?” the boy cried.
“I’m here to save your sorry life,” the girl answered.
The old man stood tall in the doorway of the modest, vaguely Lord of the Rings-style home. “Where is the Chosen One?” he demanded.
“I don’t know what you mean,” said the young girl. “The only other person here is my brother. Who are you?”
“I am Mysterious the Wizard, and I have come to take your brother on a quest, for he is the Chosen One.”
Well, I think you’ve probably had enough. We’ll stop there. Do these situations sound familiar at all? They probably should. These are three examples of common scenarios in books, movies, and television shows – I like to call them Epic…Failures.
It’s a common problem. A character is introduced, and we know this person is supposed to be mysterious, cool, probably lethal (and sometimes frightening) but to anyone who actually knows storytelling, said character comes across as cheesy, campy, and unbelievable.
EXAMPLES: LITERALLY LAME
Deucalian (Teen Wolf)
Four (The Divergent movies)
Marian (BBC’s Robin Hood)
Number Six (I Am Number Four, the movie)
The Red Skull (Captain America: The First Avenger)
Capricorn (Inkheart, the movie)
Finn (The 100, TV show)
Caelena (Throne of Glass, book)
Do these characters try? Of course they do. And therein lies the main problem – they try too hard. Let’s look at some positive examples.
EXAMPLES: ACTUALLY AWESOME
Aragorn (The Lord of the Rings)
Zoe (Firefly, tv show)
Roy Mustang (Full Metal Alchemist)
Rey (Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
Grant Ward (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)
Michonne (The Walking Dead, tv show)
Lord Aoshi (Rurouni Kenshin, the movie trilogy)
Roan (The 100, tv show)
Peggy Carter (Agent Carter, tv show)
Everybody knows how awesome these characters are. But why? What’s the difference between these characters and the aforementioned lame ones?
- Truly badass characters are understated (99% of the time). They don’t burst onto the scene wearing Eau de Mysterie and wielding five swords with two hands. Gandalf disguises himself as a crotchety old man, whereas Allanon from the Shannara Chronicles uses grave sayings and self-pomp to say, ‘Look, I am The Wizard from all the legends, look how magnificent I am.’
Once a character begins to toot their own horn, they lose ninety percent of all mystery and awesomeness. We think yeah, sure, buddy. You go ahead and say that. But we don’t want to believe them, because they’re annoying and self-righteous. Nobody wants that.
Are there instances where a character is actually all they crack themselves up to be? Yes. But these are rare cases and must be very well-written for the shtick to work. If you aren’t confident in your ability to write an epic character who doesn’t annoy your audience to death, then don’t do it. You want your audience to think your character is as awesome as you do.
- The most badass characters show how awesome they are – without bragging about it. Take Grant Ward. In season one, he’s practically prim. Is he lethal? Sure, yes, but he doesn’t brag about it. In fact, he’s kind of stuck-up and acts like he’d rather be doing push-ups to classical music somewhere. In season two, we got to see him in his element – strapping explosives to himself just to avoid capture, killing an entire van of transport guards, and generally kicking gluteus maximus. Both times, we got to see the deadly cool of Grant Ward without him shoving it in our faces and going, “LOOK! THIS IS HOW AWESOME I AM, LET ME TELL YOU.” (As the show progressed, Grant became less and less awesome and more and more of a lackey, which is why I adore his transition to Hive. He’s lethal and awesome once again.) Another great example is Zoe from Firefly. She’s the Captain’s right-hand woman, as it were – she’s a soldier, a fighter, and she’s clever, but does she constantly talk about it? No. She re-enforces what we already know, simply by being herself.
- If you ‘build up’ a character, you have given yourself something to live up to. This can be extremely hard. A good example of ‘whoops, who’s the cool one again?’ is seen in the Divergent movies. We’re supposed to think of Four as the deadly warrior, but the whole thing feels like a setup. “Okay, so this jerk who’s exchanging Dreamy Eyes™ with Tris for no reason is definitely supposed to be some kind of Awesome Dude, right?” To me, that’s annoying – and it’s why Eric is my favorite character. He has lost fights to Four, he advocates all kinds of unnecessary violence, and he may or may not have been about to shoot a little girl in the head.
And yet, he’s the one who proves himself to be truly complex, lethal, and interesting. He’s the one I enjoy watching (and not just because he’s played by Jai Courtney) because he can fight without winning every time. He shows leniency at unexpected times, and he shows brutality at unexpected times. He’s a clever strategist disguised as a brute-force thug, and he proves himself over and over again without being constantly hailed as ‘The Awesome One’ (like Four).
- The truly epic characters have limits. Most of the world looks at Superman as the epitome of ‘why bother?’ He only has one real weakness – kryptonite. Is he a good guy? Sure, but we know he’s always going to win because, um, he’s Superman. If you want your character to be convincing, they need limitations. Are there freak instances where someone gets shot 37 times and survives? Yes. Are these instances frequent? No. I’m so tired of a character freerunning across an entire city and then acting cocky while not being out of breath, because that’s a very obvious Aren’t I Cool trope. (How familiar is this scenario? ‘Cole [insert other name if you’d like] flashed me a cocky grin. “What,” he asked, “that was hard for you?”] Real people get out of breath. Real people bleed. Real people make mistakes. The more real your character is, the more awesome it will be when they convince the reader that they’re working against real odds and doing the absolute best they can.
When you as an author (or screenwriter) constantly say, “Look how cool this character is,” you’re detracting from their actual coolness. It feels like you’re hitting audiences over the head with a 2×4, screaming for their attention. Listen – your words are empty. Let the character prove themselves to the reader. Stop writing lists (101 Reasons Why This Character is Cool) and essays (You Should Totally Love This Character Because I Say So) and just write the character.
You want me to believe they’re all that? Prove it to me. Stop telling me. Show me.