My mom and I were watching the Korean Detective K
movies last night.
(You can watch them on dramafever.com or dramacool.com
) If you like the Pirates of the Caribbean
movies or the witty bromance banter of Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr in Sherlock Holmes
, then chances are you'll like these.
The Detective K
movies have a similar feel to Pirates
, in terms of the balance of comedy, supernatural elements, and action, except they're Korean, and in the Joseon era, so you might have a historical fashion shock and stuff. There are also story twists galore, so yeah, I highly recommend them.
Anyway, while watching, I had this sort of enlightenment about why my own characters are always kind of boring to me, and at the same time, why Detective K, Jack Sparrow, Sherlock Holmes, Rocky (and most of the cast from the Lackadaisy comic
) are so entertaining from the moment you meet them. Their desires are so strong that they often do something surprising in order to progress to their overall goal, while still remaining in the realm of their particular personality. (Jack Sparrow sailing in on a sinking ship, am I right?)
They are predictably unpredictable
This wasn't new information to me, one of the first things you learn in any creative writing class is that story is driven by characters and that characters are driven by their desires, so then story is really about the pursuit of desire, coming out of a comfort zone to pursue a desire, and blah, blah, blah, so of course character desire is important, that's not the enlightening part.
The enlightenment came from combining that thought with a fragment of a TED Talk I listened to a long time ago about the common qualities of addictive products (sorry, can't offer a link since I don't remember well enough to find it again). One of those primary factors of addictive products is routine with variation
, or in other words... predictably unpredictable
My mind was blown.
(As it so often is.)
In a way, my favorite characters can actually be classified as addictive
Like when they were studying dogs who would press a lever or something and a small treat would be dispensed. (Again, from an article I read like 12 years ago, so i can't source it.)
If the treat was dispensed only sometimes in a random pattern, the lever pressing was more addictive. If the treat was dispensed like 10 times in a row, and then for 10 times in row nothing came out, the dogs typically gave up after the 5th or 6th time no treat came out. It was too predictable.
Likewise, Sherlock Holmes, will always be solving crimes. It's the routine part of the movie and what we expect to see, but the clues he finds, the disguises he wears, the antics he pulls, the deductions he makes, the risks he takes to solve the crimes are all unknown and thrilling.
For a while, I thought that a character had to be selfish, flippant, or immoral at times to pull off this predictable unpredictability thing, especially when "jerk characters with amazing skills
", like Dr. House or Shawn Spencer in Psyche
, were all the rage. But now I think that just makes it a little easier (and often a little more comedic) for the writers. While it's entertaining with selfish, somewhat crazed characters, truly virtuous characters can still be unpredictable if the desire is strong enough, and/or the situation dire enough.
Probably not that well known, but should be, is an excellent Canadian TV series from the mid-90's called Due South
. It was about, as Wikipedia so concisely describes, Constable Benton Fraser, who is the archetypal Canadian Mountie: dogged, polite, and compulsively truthful. The series often featured his rigid moral code being tested by the cynical realities of Chicago life.
Quite often, instead of being unpredictably selfish, Fraser would be unpredictable in the way he would stay true to his moral code and pursuit of justice--
sometimes blowing up his partner's beloved car, or going against his allies in the Chicago Police Department to defend a known mob boss going down for a crime in which he had been framed.
I was especially impressed when Fraser wanted to help someone who was scared to testify or whatever, but he would remain in the constraints of the law and set up a situation for the other person to gain their own courage to testify, knowing fully well of the risk that the person might be too afraid to do so, and Fraser would lose in his own desire to see justice prevail
. Much harder to write and make interesting than Jack Sparrow jumping ship whenever he fancies, but I think overall just as entertaining and, in my opinion, more worthwhile in the long run.
Predictable unpredictability also made it really clear why my own characters are kind of dull. They're all modeled as people I would want to be friends with in real life; Kind, loyal, respectful, hardworking, yet, easy-going people, who like to laugh, serve and share with others, enjoying the small pleasures of life. They're so nauseatingly predictable
. When trouble shows up, they'll go to the police, or tell their parents, or try to talk it out before going into a fight. I don't have to sacrifice their upstanding nature, all they need is something so important to them-- be it love, or freedom, or justice, or pancakes
-- that it's unexpected what they might do or who they might go up against in order to achieve it.
Test it out on characters your favorite characters and let me know if any of them fail to be predictably unpredictable!