Monday, February 6, 2023

Having fascinating characters is the most important thing in any story whether it's fiction or nonfiction.

These are two very interesting characters.

In watching the trailers for The Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, a simple truth emerged that seems obvious. But it took me writing it down before I absorbed it. It reminds me of a story I heard about naming things. Sure, the color "blue" existed before it was named. But somehow adding a name to the color gave it new dimension and allowed our brains to comprehend it in a way that was useful. So, what was this simple truth? A story, and I mean any story, is nothing without good characters.

I don't know when this became true. History is replete with narratives that don't have good characters. And of all of those that I've read without good characters, they are all boring. Few people like to read historical accounts if they don't have colorful characters. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales wouldn't have struck a tone in the people of its age if the characters within it didn't have splashes of interest to them. A story about dinosaurs is nothing if you don't have good characters that exist in and around the dinosaurs to give them interest. A galaxy far far away is uninteresting until you give us the characters from far far away who behave like spoiled and dramatic teens and who do horrible things to other people until they are redeemed by an estranged son.

 The Japanese anime Gundam would be unwatchable without main characters like Amuro and Char Aznable. The same is true for the Marvel stories. The characters are everything. So as storytellers, when writers like you and me sit down to create our tales, we should be spending a ton of time on the characters. World-building (yes) is important, but it's not the most important thing. Characters first and foremost make a thing fun. They make a thing interesting, and it's the hook that brings audiences back. It's what we like to see. It's why I keep going to Marvel movies to see Paul Rudd as Ant-Man and Jonathan Majors in the role of Kang. It's why I keep going to see Thor movies. I find Chris Hemsworth to be extremely funny and entertaining in that role, and I'll keep opening my wallet to get more of that.

It's taken me half a lifetime to understand this simple concept. My friend Brad said it to me in fewer words many years ago in a conversation about his night time activities. He said in response to me asking why he liked population density so much, "Mike, people make everything fun." As a person that frequently has bad interactions with people, I didn't truly comprehend what he was saying. But between then and now, I've had quite a few positive interactions with people and my mind kind of opened. I would reframe his words today. Rather than saying that people make everything fun, I'd probably say that lots of people can make a thing fun. But it can also go the other way, and it frequently does. But if you're going to have any chance at this elusive phenomenon called fun, you're going to have to do the activity with more than just yourself. And that's because characters (at the end of the day) are the only thing that makes anything interesting for us humans.

A few years ago, I thought that Disney had (maybe) reached peak comic book with Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. But they haven't. The reason? Characters. It's always been about characters. What made Avengers: Endgame so good were the characters we were all invested in. And the villain, Thanos, was a fantastic character who was on this disturbing mission to wipe out half of all life so that the rest could flourish. Well, they don't actually need to "outdo" that. They don't need to go bigger. The key to telling good stories is always "good characters" and something tells me that this is the direction that they are building toward in Phase 4. We'll definitely know more in a week or so when the next Ant-Man movie drops, but I suspect the characters, the villains, and everyone's motivations is the vehicle that will propel us into a spectacular Avengers movie where all of the characters once again get to shine, because they are just so damned interesting.


  1. Very true and yeah it should be obvious, but sometimes the obvious eludes us.
    When writing, I've always focused on characters first.

  2. I'm not sure that's always true. There were barely any characters in those Michael Bay Transformers movies and they've made billions.

  3. Yup, it's like what you were saying about The Last of Us the other day. You cared about those characters, and that's what draws you to the story. (They were talking about that episode on the radio this morning. You were not alone in being very moved by that.)