What a Character!

Last week, Collin and I went to see a special sneak preview of Doctor Strange. We’re both big fans of the Marvel superheroes. Why? Because they don’t take themselves too seriously. There’s a lot of action in their movies, but also a healthy dose of humor. And their characters are people first, superheroes second. Their movies have some of the best characterization I’ve ever seen. Their heroes are flawed, men and women with questionable pasts, dark sides and emotional issues.

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Dr. Stephen Strange is a brilliant, arrogant neurosurgeon who believes only in himself and his skills as a surgeon–until a career-ending accident puts him on a path to a world he could never have imagined, and a life in which he could save millions rather than one life at a time.

In Captain America: Civil War, the Avengers are divided when a tragic mistake made during a mission causes the deaths of many civilians. It pits genius Tony Stark (Iron Man) against Captain Steve Rogers (Captain America). Tony has daddy issues–he never felt loved by his father, Howard. “My father never told me he loved me, he never even told me he liked me,” he says. By contrast, Steve had a close friendship with Howard back in the ’40s, when Howard assisted Dr. Abraham Erskine in creating Captain America using his super soldier serum for the US  military. Tony remembers hearing Howard talk about Steve over the years, and there’s clear resentment there. For Tony, it’s akin to sibling rivalry. Steve had a relationship with Tony’s father that Tony never had. When Tony discovers that Steve’s best friend, Bucky Barnes–the brainwashed assassin Winter Soldier–killed his father and mother twenty years ago, he realizes their deaths weren’t an accident, as Tony had been led to believe–and that Steve knew the truth.

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Tony is a complex character. He’s always been terrible at relationships, even when he really wanted them to work. He was deeply loved by his mother but felt rejected by his father–a fact that shaped all of his interpersonal connections.

Actor Chris Pratt, who portrays Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Peter Quill, describes the character as “emotionally stunted.” Peter’s mother died when he was just a boy, and he never knew his father. Add to that being abducted by aliens the night his mother died, and it makes sense that Peter would miss the maturity train, so to speak. He grew up a thief, part of a group of intergalactic pirates called Ravagers, but something deep within him yearns to be the hero, the Star-Lord his mother nicknamed him. It takes him twenty-six years to open the package she gave him on her deathbed. She told him not to open it until she was gone. Perhaps somewhere in his subconscious, he doesn’t open it because as long as he doesn’t, she’s not really gone?

Marvel’s got some well-developed villains as well–Loki, for example. The second son of Odin, King of Asgard, he grew up in the shadow of his older brother, Thor, heir to the throne. When he discovers he’s not Odin and Frigga’s biological child, that Odin found him during a battle with the Frost Giants, having been abandoned, left to die, Loki concludes this is why Odin always favored Thor. Even when Loki does his worst, fans relate to him. They get him. When an angry Odin tells him his birthright was to die, the fans feel for Loki.

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Zemo is another interesting bad guy. Having lost his entire family during the Avengers’ battle with Ultron, he seeks revenge. He knows he can’t destroy the Avengers, but with the right push, they can destroy each other. “An empire destroyed from outside can be rebuilt,” he says, “but one that is destroyed from within is dead forever.”

Throughout his quest for revenge, Zemo is seen listening to a voicemail message. It turns out to be the last message he received from his wife before her death.

When I started writing, I was focused on plot. I was young and lacked the life experience to understand the importance of well-developed characters. One editor I knew used to call me “The Master Plotter.”

Now, I prefer more character-driven stories.