Don’t get me wrong. I know fictional people aren’t real. That should be obvious to the people who send death threats over things that happen to fictional people to the real people trying to tell a good story. So at no point assume I think Superman is a real-life breathing space human being. But you are supposed to see him that way. The studios executives and publishers are supposed to see him that way. You know who isn’t? The creators telling his story.
Why do some characters stand out in our mind? Why do we still remember Captain Kirk, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman when other heroes who were quite popular around their time, sometimes even more popular, disappear from our culture? I don’t mean pop culture; that changes from generation to generation anyway, occasionally crossing the divide if it continues long enough or gets a proper revival. And yes, proper is kind of the important word here because it fits into a problem I have with modern comic and movie creators who are continuing long-standing characters.
There was a time when writers, directors, showrunners, and actors treated characters as if they were people. They weren’t just telling a story, they were bringing characters to life and telling their amazing adventures or humorous misadventures. At some point down the trail however, this has changed for the creative staff. Oh, they’re trying to create characters, but it’s no longer about bringing a current character to life and continue a story, continue the lives of those characters as if it was a long-running life story, as if they were telling their own adventures only they live on a spaceship. Because characters have now been reduced to concepts, to be molded however the current staff wants. They want to tell a story and they’ll use these names because they’re popular. But that’s what they want, the popular name and not the character, and that’s where a lot of problems in modern stories and adaptations are coming from.
Let’s get the social/political statement out of the way so you can scroll past the next two paragraphs if you so choose. There’s a recent trend to rewrite or replace characters to make up for the lack of minorities in superhero comics. (Other genres have this too but the comics and their movie adaptations are the ones at the center of this. And Doctor Who for some reason.) There were calls for Spider-Man to be played by a black man. Not Miles Morales, mind you, because he didn’t exist. Peter Parker. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ultimate version of Peter was replaced by Miles just to get Donald Glover his dream of playing Spider-Man without upsetting the long-time fans who, as I even noted in the linked-to article, notice if the hair color is off. (I have yet to see a live-action Jimmy Olsen who looks like Jimmy Olsen. Adventures Of Superman was closest but he’s not a redhead.) LGBT fans have been wanting to get Captain America Steve Rogers a boyfriend. You know, the guy from back when you couldn’t be gay in public, has been shown to be heterosexual for years (and for Steve that’s a lot of years), and have never shown an inkling of being gay. Not that it stopped Marvel from suddenly making Iceman gay.
That’s because they don’t see Steve Rogers, Peter Parker, or Bobby Drake as people or as characters. They see the prestige that comes with Captain America, Spider-Man, and (to a small extent) Iceman. They’re popular, and they don’t just want a gay or minority superhero. They want a big-name superhero to see as themselves. (Oh let’s be honest, gay men want to date Steve Rogers as much as straight women do.) It’s not enough to create a black, female, or gay hero. They want that popular name in pop and regular culture to claim as their own. Maybe they see what happened to Northstar and Batwoman? Batwoman is a good character and was only a lesbian long after a multiversal reboot (DC loves those) while Northstar is just not very interesting to people. So if you create a new gay superhero, they shrug, but if Alan Scott, the first Green Lantern, is gay now, it’s celebration time!
Then you have the re-imaginings. Again, I’m not talking about the quality. For garbage like Chips (the things I’ve heard about that movie) there’s a 21 Jump Street (which I hear good things about but I never cared for either version). However, CHiPs was more popular in its day than 21 Jump Street in its day. My dad loves watching the old show on METV. Sure, Chips (I’m purposefully spelling the movie wrong because it doesn’t deserve to be connected to the show) is just another mockstalgia movie, a movie mocking a nostalgic property, instead of the usual not-stalgia, where a movie just takes names and slaps them on original characters. Like Battlestar Galactica. What used to be the names of the characters are now callsigns on characters that bear no resemblance to the originals beyond the barest of descriptions.
Then you have those writers who are actually working in a certain fictional universe but will change character motivations, personalities, and histories to serve the story. Harlan Ellison wrote an episode of Star Trek where Kirk acts out of character, and threw a fit when the script doctor fixed it so the story still works without altering the character. For something recent you have writers like Brian Michael Bendis and Geoff Johns. On more than one occasion Bendis had a character act not like him or herself (like Doctor Doom calling Carol Danvers a “cow” or Luke Cage swearing despite an in-canon reason why “Sweet Christmas” is the closest thing to cursing he does) because he wanted to write a character like that and just altered an existing character rather than use the right character or create one. Johns has not only retconned other people’s stories to suit whatever crazy (and admittedly interesting more often than not) idea he has at the moment, but has even retconned HIMSELF on occasion. “Remember that idea I came up with for Green Lantern lore? Well, this is much better so I have to retcon the other one out.” I know some writers really hate continuity because it messes with whatever story they want to tell and refuses to wait until the right opportunity, or simply wants the “origin power”, but Johns takes the cake with icing and a pudding filling. The filling flavor changes every piece.
You know, I’ve read interviews with writers who have made their characters so real to them that they could swear the characters were telling the story. “I have Doctor Maad using killer cyborg turtles on the city. How would this character solve this?” “Hi, I’m this character and I’ll tell you.” “Okay, voice in my head. I will trust you to make my story better and accurate so fans see your story continuing.” It’s a sign of a strong imagination…provided it ends there. If the voices are making you do…other things, put down the pen and call a head shrink. These aren’t just concepts to a good writer, they’re “people” whose life story you’re telling, and if that’s your approach you have a better chance of convincing the readers or viewers of this as well. If you approach it as a big name to promote whatever story you have in mind with no respect for the source material (every DC movie and show not on the CW or animated) it shows a lack of respect for the source material that goes beyond translating between mediums or time periods. And that’s going to piss people off. If you want to do a one-shot story, do a one-shot story but if you’re continuing a long-running story keep to the universe created.
There are people who grew up with James T. Kirk, or Steve Rogers, or Peter Parker, or Clark Kent, and they expect the characters to act and look a certain way, because they were written by writers (working with actors, directors, or artists) who were continuing a story. This isn’t limited to character-driven stories. Event-driven stories still need to have good characters. Ram Man and Grimlock won’t stay supergeniuses, Lucy Ricardo learns nothing from her last hair-brained scheme when she has her next one, and Daffy keeps falling for the Duck Season gag. But they’re still characters, people, with a set personality and a set response to whatever is going to happen. There may be some evolution but for the most part how many experiences have YOU had that does nothing to change you. Now imagine the extraordinary being just another Tuesday.
But characters are no longer people to these creators, and they have little to no care for the fans of those characters. You grew up with Jon and Ponch? Well, we didn’t and we hate light-hearted stuff so we’re going to make fun of it? The A-Team? Wouldn’t they be better if it was taken more seriously? Superman? Well, clearly he isn’t alien enough and needs more tragedy in his life. The Power Rangers? Too campy, let’s “fix” that. People being chased through the galaxy by killer robots? I’m going to take that in a whole new direction but use the famous names so more people might tune into it. And why should I care what the character looks like when I just want to select someone who will rake in the money and fit better with the story I want to tell that I’m calling Wild Wild West because it’s a Western that had some mild science fiction elements, just like mine. Besides, Super Mario Brothers would be much better with cyberpunk and evolved dinopeople instead of this happy fantasy stuff that doesn’t have the edge I want and I couldn’t sell this script without the famous names attached.
Creators, do not approach your characters, whether you own them or are just picking up the proverbial story stick, like concepts. Especially nowadays when there are numerous ways to keep a full character history at your fingertips (although DC and Marvel had guidebooks they sold to the public that could be used by writers) to write them correctly, or create a backstory you might not otherwise use but will inform you if nobody else how a character thinks and why, even if the audience is never aware of it. Give them a personality and stick with it unless they do have a life-changing moment; in which case stick to those alterations. If you approach characters as just base concepts for whatever story you want to tell fans will never connect to them. But give them history, personality, purpose, and stay with that–approach your characters as people instead of just a description of something close to what you want to use, and people will respond. Sure, they know it’s all fake even if you based a character on somebody you know, but if just for that half hour, those 22 pages, those few hours of gameplay, those 17 chapters you make them feel real to the audience and you’ll have them hooked.
Or treat them as a puzzle piece you forced into this adventure without actually figuring out how this person would act and lead us to care about as much as you do. Your story is good, but maybe use the right characters or wait for the right opportunity to tell that story. That’s how we end up with giant steampunk spiders.