One of the smartest comic book movies ever written has some great lessons for us writers. What better way to pick up some writing tips than by watching movies?
In Spiderman 2 (2004), director Sam Raimi employed a technique with his main character that great writers have long used, but which, sadly, many writers today fail to employ. That is the method of pounding your MC into the ground. Blast him with bad news. Take everything he has from him and then kick his feet out from under him. (Ali of aliventures wrote a nice little post about this, here.)
George RR Martin has perfected this method. He beats the crap out of his characters. In fact, it is through his extreme use of this method that Martin is able to manipulate readers into sympathizing with formerly despicable characters. (But that is a more advanced writing technique for another post for another time.)
We watch, mesmerized, as Peter Parker is fired from his job, discovers that the love of his life is engaged to another man; he is mistreated and abused and disregarded by everyone (except his anorexic female neighbor), loses his self-confidence and his web-slinging ability by association, and finally is forced to endure a public slapping from his best friend. And that’s not even mentioning his main problem: a vengeful scientist with four mechanical arms welded to his body.
It’s one thing after another, beating poor Peter into the ground.
In novels and movies this makes us feel for the MC. But beneath the surface, it also creates wonderful opportunities for character arcs.
When you hurt your darlings—just as with real people in real life—they become vulnerable and open to deep emotional states. Peter eventually chooses the right path, that of a hero. That’s the story crux of Spiderman 2. He learns to become the hero, not because he can, but because that is who he wants to be for his city, no matter its negative effects on his own personal life.
But if you watch the movie and pay close attention, and think about it, you will realize that all these terrible events in his life could just as easily have resulted in creating a villain out of Peter Parker.
In fact, those events are, when you get right down to it, basically the origin story of many villains. They are basically the same things (or worse) that happened to Adrian Toomes in Spiderman: Homecoming.
The difference is that Toomes handled the situation poorly. His decision was driven by selfish impulses. Instead of reflecting on what the city needed, he considered only his own desires. Peter Parker considered his desires, but he also weighed them against the needs of his hometown, and he was wise enough to recognize and confess that his wants and needs—as always—paled in comparison to the needs of New York.
Mythcreants offers a useful little guide for villain origin stories (and even uses movies as examples, which is always cool.)
Does it seem strange that a hero and a villain origin story might be found in the same circumstances?
When I think about it, I must admit that it does not seem strange, after all.
Heroism and villainy are two sides of the same coin. It should come as no surprise that the basis for both might be similar; circumstances (should) shape each of your characters. It is their response to their situation that determines their personality and, ultimately, their destiny.
There are few things more rewarding to read about than characters in dire straits coming to terms with their stations and resolving how to respond.
How do your characters respond to their situations?
It is a vital question you must consider if you want to create a compelling narrative and bold characters. Indecisive characters are annoying. Those who know who they are, or who know who that want to be, make for the greatest, most entertaining characters. They are the sort of people your readers want to read about.
When Peter Parker decides to be the hero the city (and he himself) needs, we are treated to a character with a resolute mind. He knows who he is—and so what follows is pure entertainment.
When you sit down to write your characters, remember to pound them into the ground, force them into making tough decisions. By the end, they should know who they are, and happily embrace who they are—like you. You are a writer. Embrace that fact. Rejoice in it! Educate yourself in the art and joy of writing, by reading and writing. And don’t forget to look for tips in your favorite movies, or right here.