Huh? Or Why Characters Do What They Do

I watched this really awful movie recently. It was called Scorcher and it was about nuking LA so that the tectonic plates would stop moving and thereby stop the imminent “hell on earth” from arriving (i.e. earth becoming a really hot place). It was bad on a lot of fronts, not the least of which was the science and plotholes of it all. But I kept watching anyhow. Why? I was fascinated by how unbelievable the characters and their motivations were, and the fact that they made this entire movie without seeming to realize how little held it together. Someone paid for the writing to be this bad.

So we have a father and daughter team. He’s never been around for her and she hates him, but they are both the leading experts in–hell, I don’t know. Some science devoted to the tectonic plates moving apart. No one else is consulted in the nuking of LA to make this happen. So anyhow, she hates him but he’s been (unbeknownst to her) feeding her grant money and etc. because he really really luuuuuvs her and respeeeeeects her. Until she at some point she points out the problem in an equation and he completely blows her off. To the point of ridiculing her. Why? Well, who knows? It isn’t at all within the parameters of the character setup, but the writers needed a fight for the plot, so they dropped one in there without regard to anything like, oh, coherence.

Then we get the eeeeeeevil character who is just trying to do his job. Because he’s a loyal American agent of (some agency with some sort of initials, I’m guessing). So the band of bombers decides they need to set off two nukes to make this work. And even though the scientists agree, eeeeeevil agency dude decides not to contact his superiors because, well, who the hell knows why? and instead starts killing people and chasing down the good guys to stop them because, well, maybe he’s got a particularly bad wedgie? And he kills even the innocent dad-scientist (see above) even though he could have just bopped him on the head, because, well, again, wedgie?

As I watched, wanting to poke my eyes out and drag myself away and yet unable to, I kept coming back to the issue of characterization. Characters can be the most freakish, strange, unbelievable sorts of people, but they have to be internally consistent. A reader (or watcher) has to understand why they behave like they do. (Oh, and I will throw in here the cocky colonel in Scorcher who apparently made a pass at the first lady at some point previous to the beginning of the movie and the president actually needles him about it in front of a bunch of people–like a freaking president would want anyone to know? Like that colonel wouldn’t have been busted down to scraping dog crap up off the front lawn of the Whitehouse?) Whew. No more of that.

So anyhow, characters have to be believable, and believability comes from making them consistent and accurate to themselves. They can’t get a sudden revelation caused by absolutely nothing and suddenly do a 180 on all their previous behaviors and beliefs. You have to show them growing, changing, making choices, and etc. The things they do have to be a product of who they are and their experiences. There always has to be a reason for why they do what they do, and that reason has to match up with what you’ve built to that point.

So tell me, what are the most egregious character WTFs? that you’ve encountered in your reading and/or movie watching lives?

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  1. 1. Greg

    My biggest character issue, which can show up in any and all fiction, is when a plot is driven by a character stuck between two possible extremeties for a choice and no one will mention at all any possibilities outside of that. My example of such: Kevin Smith’s film Chasing Amy ceters around the relationship between a straight man who falls in love with a lesbian, who then falls in love with him. There is much discussion of “Loving someone for who they are, not there gender,” the myth that “all lesbians just need a good man,” is debated and discredited, and much pain and consternation when it is learned that the Lesbian character had in fact had sex with men before coming out as a lesbian.

    If one character had said the word “Bisexual” at anypoint in the film, there is no dramatic character motivation past the forty-five minute mark.

    This problem almost always seems to be tied in with a political slant, usually “We can’t go with choice A because that would invalidate choice B in all cases.” So many stories would become more interesting in my opinion were someone to say “Well, why CAN’T you have it both ways?” or “What about this third option?”

    You see a lot of this in movies where a parent has to chose between a job that will pay well and spending time with their family, usually ending with the parent choosing their children over money, which is rediculous, because it presumes that kids don’t get sick, out grow clothes and need braces every. seventeen. days.

    Now if you can give me a good solid character or plot reason WHY there can’t be a choice outside of either/or, that’s another matter entirely.

  2. 2. Cameron Lowe

    I’m a huge fan of shitacular movies like this. I must have recorded over fifty or sixty movies on the Sci-Fi channel alone, just because the stuff they air is almost always unbelievably terrible. The worst (and therefore best, in an odd way) movie I’ve ever had the dubious pleasure of watching was a little made-for-TV gem called Dracula 3000, starring none other than Casper van Dien, Tony Lister, Udo Kier, and – wait for it – Coolio. Now that right there should tell you something. Any movie with Rico from Starship Troopers and a rapper long since past relevancy is a recipe for brilliance.

    Here’s why it was amazing. Not only was there a complete lack of characterization, but the plot was devised by a bunch of monkeys armed with crack pipes. Apparently, a spaceship captained by Dien and his crew encounters another ship out in the darkness of space (in the Transylvanian system, no less), where they encounter Orlock, a vampire. Okaaaay. Skip forward to the end (trust me, spoilers are a blessing for this hunk of flaming dogshit). Casper van Dien, touted as the ship’s savior the entire movie, is turned into a vampire for all of three seconds. Orlock’s arm is neatly sliced off in a door (not crushed, sliced like pepperoni)… and best of all, the female lead in the entire movie reveals herself in the last few minutes to be a robot designed for sexual pleasure and runs off with Tony Lister to practice the art of making babies. Moments later, the ship hits a star. Boom. Roll credits.

    I wish I was joking.

    Anyways, characterization. At no point in the movie did any character have an ounce of likability. Back stories were created and disposed of (again, Dien was supposed to be a savior of sorts, even being named Van Helsing, and then he kicked the bucket in a most unspectacular way). Orlock’s mind tricks disappear three-fourths of the way through the movie. Tony Lister goes from angry bear to perveted teenager. Coolio… well, his character was some sort of take on what a cool guy in the year 3000 would be like, except he just came off as a coked-out former rapper looking for a quick paycheck.

    See also: Pterodactyl, Return of the Living Dead (the Sci-Fi ones are atrocious and mind-numbing), The Plague, and just about anything on Sci-Fi that is movie-length. The granddaddy of them all is Alien Apocalypse, starring the man, the myth, the legend Bruce Campbell.

  3. 3. Karen Wester Newton

    I totally agree. But, the thing is, if the story gives me something good enough, I don’t care. I love the movie THE FIFTH ELEMENT even though it makes no sense. There are plot holes I could drive an SUV through, and Bruce Willis is a hero with a touch of jerk in him (all he wants is a woman who’s perfect. Is that too much to ask?). And when he finds Ms. Perfect, Leeloo, the character played by Milla Jovovich, she can learn English and martial arts in minutes but she falls apart in a crisis until he tells her he loves her.

    But it is so damn fun to watch! I love the different aliens, I love Gary Oldman chewing the hi-tech scenery as Mr. Zorg, I love the scene where a flying junk serves Bruce Willis a hot lunch in his apartment. I must have seen that movie at least 6 times.

    Maybe if the book or movie is funny, it’s easier to get away with?

  4. 4. Sam

    Basically: entertainment vs realism.

    Entertainment wins out when you want to be entertained. Realism can make the entertainment stronger, but if the two are in conflict it’s the entertainment that counts.

    That isn’t to say that if you find realism biting a hole in your entertaining plot you shouldn’t look for a third way that has both realism and entertainment – in fact the constraints of realism can make you more inventive and come up with something that’s more interesting and more entertaining than your original idea.

  5. 5. S.C. Butler

    Most movies seem to have given up on realistic character motivation about the same time they became irrevocably focused on the viewing habits of 14 year old boys. TVs a little better these days, but even good shows like Battlestar drive me crazy the way they often insist on characters not acting in their own self-interest in the interest of increasing the drama.

    Don’t get me going about Lost.

    Melinda Snodgrass has a great post on why TV and film writers do the things they do at her website –

Author Information

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Diana Pharaoh Francis has written the fantasy novel trilogy that includes Path of Fate, Path of Honor and Path of Blood. Path of Fate was nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Recently released was The Turning Tide, third in her Crosspointe Chronicles series (look also for The Cipher and The Black Ship). In October 2009, look for Bitter Night, a contemporary fantasy. Diana teaches in the English Department at the University of Montana Western, and is an avid lover of all things chocolate. Visit site.



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