Tag Archives: characterization

When a Hurricane of Clichés Equals a Great Movie

Today, I’m going to talk about Casablanca. If you want to know more about why I care about Casablanca, check out my previous post, ‘Writing Reality – Or Escaping It‘.

quotables button“Thus Casablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology… And this is the reason it works, in spite of aesthetic theories and theories of film making…Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.”

Umberto Eco (Travels in Hyperreality, and “Casablanca, or, The Clichés are Having a Ball”)

For years, filmmakers hungered to know what made Casablanca a classic. If they could just crack the formula – figure out what made people instantly love it so much – they could crank out sure-fire hits over and over. After all, on the surface, there’s not much to recommend Casablanca above your average movie. It’s a very clichéd plot – a love triangle, a sacrifice, a clear antagonist, a damsel in distress. The characters are walking stereotypes. The character arcs have all been done a thousand times before (even in 1942, when this movie was made).

If there was a key to filmmaking—or writing in general, which is what I care about most of all—wouldn’t that be nice? A magic key unlocking the secrets of what makes stories work? But there isn’t. There’s no magic key – only magic. The magic that happens when, in this case, the right combination of actors, characterization, plot and tired clichés combine.

I shouldn’t have enjoyed Casablanca. You’d think by now, seventy or so years after its release, the plot would’ve been spoiled for me. It should be like those people who watched the Lord of the Rings movies and wondered why it used every fantasy stereotype in the book, when it reality it’s merely because Lord of the Rings INVENTED those stereotypes (except in this case it’s romance stereotypes, and Casablanca didn’t invent them but merely inspired the continual recycling of these old tropes). I saw the end coming from a mile away. Also, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve picked up something everyone told me was a classic, and hated it (see Romeo and Juliet, and Wuthering Heights).

However, I did love it. Like I said, there was magic.

And I love the quote I pasted above, because it shows how conventional wisdom about stories falls short – how in this particular case not an avoidance of clichés but a hurricane of clichés is what makes the movie. Casablanca breaks an accepted, basic rule of stories. But then again, every piece of true art is flawed.

Will lightning strike again if you use a hurricane of clichés? Or is Casablanca merely lightning in a bottle? There’s no way to say, except that creating art involves risk-taking and bravery. Sometimes that means breaking new ground. And sometimes that means risking doing what everyone else tells you is overdone.

The genius comes in telling what situation calls for which.

And if your striving eventually comes up with a story that works – a story that speaks to something inside humanity, and satisfies something in our cores – well, then your work has been touched by that magic.

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Filed under Misc. Books, On Writing, Quotables

The Missing Ingredient in Too Many Romance Novels

 

True medieval love

True medieval love.

The Over-stated Role of Attraction

There are a couple typical plots for romance novels, but most of them go something like this: Girl is frustrated at being single/sick of dating jerks/doesn’t have time for romance. Girl and Guy meet cute. Girl and Guy hate each other for some contrived reason (usually one of them is arrogant). Somehow they’re attracted anyway. They fall in love. Something happens to separate them (Lies! Misunderstandings! He’s actually a reporter in disguise! She spies him having dinner with a beautiful women who turns out to be his sister!) And once this simple barrier is overturned, after many, many pages of anguished heart-searching on the part of both of the Guy and the Girl, they realize that they are each other’s True Love and they get together. Forever, unless it’s a more modern, more cynical work.

My problem is that so often books skip over why they are attracted to each other in the first place.

Usually if they start by hating each other, the author explicitly points out that they are irrationally attracted to each other anyway, and at some point this irrational attraction overrules their better judgement and they get closer to each other. So, pretty much these romances are based on the fact that one character is a guy and one character is a girl, and thus they must be inherently attracted. The flaw in this plan, I think, is that not every girl and guy is attracted to each other. Especially if they’ve given each other good reason to hate each other. After all, I don’t fall in love with every arrogant jerk I run into. To me, using random irrational forces of attraction to get a couple together is a cop-out for the author. It was magic, I swear! 

I get the feeling that often the authors are not very committed to making their characters truly dislike each other. Because the author is pretty much in love with one character or another anyway, so of course their destined romantic partner will be too. Unfortunately, in real life, if you don’t like someone you usually need pretty strong evidence before you change your mind. Otherwise this dislike is merely a formality the romance novel has to get over – a puny little barrier that can be knocked over with one hand.

Honestly, I’ve read far too many books where once the ‘meet cute’ and ‘initial dislike’ is over, the plot grinds to a complete halt. I read one novel where the couple got together in the exact middle, and nothing else happened until the second-last chapter! Really, chapter after chapter of idyllic romantic scenes, when you haven’t given me any insight into what these two characters like about each other (other than ‘she’s beautiful,’ and he’s ‘confidant and handsome’), is less than enthralling.

So, tell me again why Romeo and Juliet like each other? Is it just because they can both make silly rhymes? (Says Romeo: My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand/To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss. Quoth Juliet: Well, saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.) Or because it’s just thrilling that one is a Montague and the other is a Capulet? Sorry to harp on this particular couple so often, but they’ve been held up as the epitome of romantic love for so long, and I can’t understand why.

To beat another dead horse, in Pride and Prejudice both Darcy and Elizabeth find each other somewhat attractive at first (she is “tolerable,” and he is a “fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien”). Yet that does not prevent them from developing an intense dislike for each other – a dislike that takes the whole book to get over. That is character development. That is an obstacle to a romantic relationship that is not minimized by saying, “love conquers all,” (which is not true, anyway), but by treating it realistically.

Okay, so sometimes people are irrationally attracted, and sometimes they are stupid and get together with someone against their better judgement. Unfortunately, this usually ends in tragedy, not the run-of-the-mill happy endings applied to every romance novel.

 

Maybe I’ve just been reading really bad novels. Have you read any that were better than this?

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Filed under True Romance

The Trouble With Modern Romance

Romantic SunSet by Yusri Abd Halim. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

The trouble with modern romance novels is that our culture sees no reason for two people who are in love not to be together. This significantly cuts down on the potential for conflict in the novel. In comparison, Jane Austen had it easy.

I’m going to use Jane Austen as an example for a second, since pretty much everybody knows she wrote romance novels in the 1800s, and I can hardly be blamed for “spoiling the ending” of any of her novels (if a book’s been around for two hundred years, its ending is fair game for discussion – proven by the fact most classic novels are prefaced by an essay by some English professor or another, in which every single plot point of the novel is discussed. Seriously, if you don’t want the novel spoiled, skip those essays. You might want to skip the next two paragraphs of this post too).

Anyway, let’s start with Jane Austen’s most famous – Pride and Prejudice. Central conflict at the end: Lydia runs off with the dastardly Wickham, and Elizabeth thinks Darcy will never want to be seen with her family again because of the shame. Nowadays most guys couldn’t care less who your sister runs off with, so not a major conflict. Also, a major obstacle between Darcy and Elizabeth is that they’re in different classes. In real life, of course, class still effects relationships, but most of us would prefer to pretend we live in a world that doesn’t emphasize social standing anymore – making class struggle a touchy thing to handle in the dream-world of romance novels.

Then take Sense and Sensibility. Central conflict: the man Elinor is in love with is secretly engaged to someone else. Goodness, think of a reason that would cause someone nowadays to keep an engagement secret for four years (far longer than the guy was in love with the girl, too). I used to wonder why there were no modern versions of Sense and Sensibility, like there are of Pride and Prejudice, until I realized how hard the plot would be to update. And then take Northanger Abbey – the hero’s father forbids the match and throws the heroine out of his house. In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth is considered too lowly for Anne Elliot, and she’s persuaded to drop him by her father and her friend. Parents nowadays only wish they had that much influence over their children!!!

Jane Austen got her pick between secret engagements, class struggles, lack of fortune, parental disapproval… all valid reasons in Jane Austen’s day, but harder to make plausible now. A couple in a book or movie can meet cute, hang out, start kissing, and spent the night together before the end of a scene… and where does the story go from that? An “unexplained past” is the cliché solution, though the secret is never shocking enough to deserve being kept secret (because, of course, if the secret past is truly horrible, how will the main character ever be sympathetic? Seriously, the hero’s secret in the last novel I read was that once he’d illustrated romance novels in his spare time.) The other solution is jealousy of past girlfriends/boyfriends, co-workers, etc., which is tiresome and either makes one character look insecure, or makes the other look like a cad.

Which possibly is the reason for the multitudes of anemic chick flicks or novels where the whole plot could be solved in five minutes if the guy and the girl just talked to each other! No other option for conflict, so let’s just make them not talk. Which makes absolutely no sense – if the basis of a good relationship is good communication, how is the reader supposed to believe this couple’s going to last five minutes after “The End,” when they spent the whole time not communicating?

So in modern romance, where’s the conflict? No one’s stopping the couple from getting drunk and running to Vegas, except the couple themselves.

 Maybe that’s the key – the couple themselves. My guess is that romance novels have shifted from external conflict imposed by society, parents, lack of finances and so on, to internal conflict created by the people in the relationship. Certain aspects of character WILL create conflict, and make a good novel. Certain values of hero/heroine may delay progress of relationship, or past experiences may affect it. But a novel needs incredibly strong characterization to pull this off.

No wonder so many romance novels fail then – characterization is a tough thing to pull off. I’m not sure I succeed at it either. But it’s something to aim for.

What do you think – have changes in society made it harder to write romances, or easier?

 

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Filed under Jane Austen, On Writing, True Romance