Tag Archives: character development

Gabby Kinney: A Case-Study In Cuteness

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What makes a character cute?

That’s a not an empty question. It’s one that movie studios, TV networks, toy makers, and novelists attempt to answer every day. I’m not just talking about the ones affiliated with Disney, either. While the House of Mouse is legendary for crafting a winning formula for the creation of all things cute and lovable, it’s worth breaking down the components.

Understanding them isn’t just important for creating likable characters. It can be pretty damn lucrative too. Just look at the merchandise sales for “Frozen.” Cute, adorable characters sell. They sell a lot. Plenty has been written about the cuteness of characters created by Disney, Fox, and a multitude of Japanese anime. However, I’d like to single out one particularly adorable character.

As it just so happens, this character is from the world of superhero comics. Specifically, she’s from the X-men comics. If you’ve followed this website for any length of time, this shouldn’t surprise you in the slightest. I promise this isn’t just another love letter to the X-men like the many I’ve crafted before. This is an exploration of a character who forged a unique path to cuteness.

Her name is Gabrielle “Gabby” Kinney, also known as Honey Badger. You probably haven’t heard of her because, in the context of Marvel’s vast history, she’s very new. She has only been around for about three years. In that time, though, she’s done plenty to make her mark on the world.

Think of the cutest characters you’ve ever known. Whether it’s a talking animal, a princess, or a boy band, take a moment to contemplate all the traits that make them cute. From their looks, their personality, their story, and everything in between, think about qualities that make them so adorable.

Without hesitation, I can say Gabby has all those qualities, as well as a few you didn’t know could be so adorable in the first place.

That may sound like a bold claim, but it’s true. After reading every issue of All-New Wolverine, I genuinely believe that she has raised the bar for cuteness for any character, both within superhero comics and in the real world. To appreciate why her story is so remarkable, it’s necessary to know some key details about her backstory.

This should give you a few telling hints.

On paper, she doesn’t come off as the kind of character who can be overly cute. She’s a clone of Laura “X-23” Kinney, who herself is a partial clone of Wolverine. Given the number of clone-based character in comics, including a few who are notably infamous, she doesn’t have a lot going for her at first.

That changes quickly after she’s introduced. She’s actually one of three clones from Laura, but she ends up being the one who makes the greatest impression and not just because she doesn’t go evil, which tends to happen a lot with clones in comics.

From the beginning, Gabby sets herself apart as being the more upbeat, bubbly clone of the bunch. She’s not overly angry or vindictive. She isn’t even that bothered by the fact that she’s a clone. It helps that she’s just a kid, but it also helps that this has never been hidden from her. She knows what she is and doesn’t whine about it. That, alone, makes her more mature than the majority of adult heroes, even the non-clone ones.

She even has a sense of humor about it. She doesn’t take herself too seriously. She doesn’t get too uptight in tense situations, either. That even includes dangerous situations that involve dragons, zombie animals, and alien parasitic bugs. Gabby sees the world through a rose-colored lens, regardless of how ugly it is, and this is the key to what makes her so adorable.

Whether she’s helping Laura battle Sentinels or caring for a pet wolverine, Gabby always finds a reason to smile. She’ll always look for the lighter side of a complicated situation and help others see it. That sort of thing is becoming increasingly precious in today’s overly-cynical world, but it’s especially powerful in the world of superhero comics.

The very premise of any world involving superheroes requires that the world contain the kinds of chaos that can’t be contained with extra police and stiffer fines. In Gabby’s case, she inhabits a world full of evil organizations like Hydra, shape-shifting aliens like the Skrulls, and actual devil-like creatures that go out of their way to ruin marriages between iconic characters.

The fact that Gabby can lighten the mood under those circumstances helps amplify her lovability. Make no mistake. She is disturbingly lovable. I say that as someone who was extremely sick of clone character at the time All-New Wolverine debuted in June 2015. However, the writer of All-New Wolverine, Tom Taylor, went the extra mile with Gabby.

It’s not just in the light-hearted jokes that she makes. It’s not just the fact that she’s a cute kid full of youthful innocence, despite having been cloned in a lab by assholes who wanted to make her a living weapon. Any character can just say goofy things and ignore the horrible crap going on around them. Where Gabby really shines is how she affects those around her.

From the moment she meets Laura to her first hilarious team-up with Deadpool, Gabby has a positive influence on pretty much everyone she meets. She doesn’t get scared or overwhelmed by any given situation, even those involving parasitic aliens. She never lets these situations destroy her child-like innocence.

That, in and of itself, sets her apart in a major way. In so many other stories involving cute characters, their innocence is treated like fine china. It’s easy to crack, easy to taint, and irreparable when damaged. More often than not, a big part of a plot surrounding cute characters is how they become corrupted.

Tom Taylor basically turns that narrative upside down. Rather than build the story around how Gabby loses her innocence, he essentially surrounds her innocence in an adamantium shell that’s every bit as unbreakable as Wolverine’s claws.

This is critical to what makes Gabby uniquely cute, but it’s also important to the presence she brings to the X-men comics and the larger Marvel universe. Instead of having everyone try to protect her innocence, she basically has to shove her cuteness in their face and remind them that she doesn’t need protecting. In fact, they need her more than she needs them.

She gives them a reason to laugh and smile after Hydra has taken over the United States. She gives them a reason to feel good after the Red Skull comes back to life yet again to bring old-fashioned fascism to the world. She goes out of her way to be a positive presence on everyone she encounters. However, it’s her impact on Laura where her cuteness becomes genuinely endearing.

To appreciate why that matters, it’s worth recalling just how dark and brutal Laura’s story has been thus far. That story has closely followed that of her predecessor, Logan. She was born in a lab, subject to dehumanizing treatment, and turned into a living weapon. Unlike Gabby, she didn’t escape it until she’d committed soul-scarring atrocities, one of which included the death of her mother.

Since her introduction in the memorable, yet underrated “X-men Evolution” cartoon of the early 2000s, Laura has personified a worst-case-scenario for a cloned character. Her life, her story, and her personality are driven by loss, anger, and sorrow. Then, Gabby comes along and suddenly, there’s a light in her life.

Gabby is like a breath of fresh air to someone who has only been breathing smog for all their life. She’s like a hot shower after spending 4 hours shoveling snow in a blizzard. She provides an overdue balance to long-suffering characters like Laura that it’s more than just refreshing. It’s cathartic.

Gabby helps give Laura and her story something that benefits them both. She creates an outlet from the endless string of tragedies that plague the Marvel universe and the real world. She dares Laura and those following her story to not let all that ugliness destroy all that is good and pure. A cloud of darkness doesn’t have to cover the entire sky. There’s always room for a ray of light.

Gabby is that ray of light. Cute, adorable characters tend to shine brighter than most. That’s what gives them such a powerful presence. Whether it’s in a Disney movie or a superhero comic, they illuminate the darkness and make the characters around them do more than just lament. The fact that Gabby does all of this and cares for a pet Wolverine makes her a special kind of cute.

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Filed under Deadpool, human nature, media issues, superhero comics, superhero movies, video games, X-men

Walter White Vs. Saul Goodman: A Tale Of Two Villains

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If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, then the road to villainy has many paths with similar landmarks. Well-developed villains can be every bit as compelling as their heroic counterparts, if not more so. Ever since Heath Ledger’s Joker stole the show and an Oscar in “The Dark Knight,” great villains aren’t just a complement to the heroes. They’re a journey unto themselves.

At the moment, Walter White from “Breaking Bad” is the ultimate embodiment of this journey. His path to villainy made for some of the greatest moments in modern television and Bryan Cranston has the Emmy trophies to prove it. Since then, it seems as though everyone is just struggle to keep up.

However, there’s one journey that comes very close and is remarkably similar. Fittingly enough, it spins right out of the world of “Breaking Bad.” I’m talking, of course, about “Better Call Saul,” the prequel/spin-off that tells the story of how an aspiring lawyer named James McGill became the morally bankrupt legal guru, Saul Goodman.

I’ve been watching this show closely for a while now. I was originally planning to wait until the conclusion of Season 4 to write about it, but after re-watching the Season 3 finale, I feel like there’s too much to work with. After seeing that episode, I feel like I saw a turning point in the ongoing transformation of James McGill to Saul Goodman. I also saw some important parallels with Walter White that are worth discussing.

At its core, “Breaking Bad” is a story about how a law-biding man goes from an underpaid chemistry teacher to a blood-thirsty drug kingpin. Creator Vince Gilligan nicely summed up Walt’s transformation as going from Mr. Chips to Scarface. That journey, and the story behind it, took an initially unassuming character and turned them into someone they never thought they could be.

The essence of “Better Call Saul” is very different. James McGill is not the same as Walter White. From the very first episode, we can see traces of the unscrupulous con man manifesting in a many ways. The show establishes in Season 1 that James McGill is not some clean-cut straight-arrow like Walt was. His soul was tainted before he ever applied to law school.

James “Slipping Jimmy” McGill is someone who always seems inclined to cut corners, break rules, and cheat to get ahead. That’s something his older brother, Charles “Chuck” McGill, constantly points out over the course of the first three seasons. Every time Jimmy had a chance to do the right thing, he compromised. Just doing the right thing wasn’t enough for him.

Walter White’s decision-making process was similar. In the early seasons of “Breaking Bad,” he showed a reluctance to cross certain lines and go too far. He often found himself pushed or tempted, sometimes by forces beyond his control and sometimes by the consequences of actions. At the end of the day, though, he still didn’t get off that path.

That’s a common thread for many villains in their journey. They find themselves on that path and they see opportunities to leave it, but they choose not to. They don’t seek redemption like a hero would. They just keep making excuses, willfully entering a brutal cycle of corruption and compromise.

Whereas Walt succumbed to that cycle, though, James McGill steadily embraces it. Moreover, he isn’t drawn into that path by tragedy or bad luck. He gravitates towards it. He’s even excited by it. James is at his most animated and charismatic when he’s pulling a con, putting on a show, or crafting a lie. It’s not a necessity like it was for Walt. It’s a thrill.

If James is tempted by anything, it’s the lure of walking the honorable path like his older brother. In fact, Chuck might have been the only positive influence that kept Jimmy from becoming something worse than a sleazy con-man. He and a host of other influence, especially Kim Wexler and Howard Hamlin, play the part of a reverse temptress, trying to keep him off that villainous path.

Early on, there’s a sense that James genuinely wants to be a decent, upstanding lawyer. There are situations where he does the right thing. Some of the causes he takes on, such as a case against an elder care facility that was stealing money from its residents, are objectively noble. In the end, though, doing the right thing isn’t enough for him. The end of Season 1 really cements that.

Walt goes through a similar process early on. Like the “refusal of the call” that heroes experience, Walt attempts to escape the villainous path. However, a combination of circumstances and choices put Walt back on the road towards becoming Heisenberg. By the end of Season 1, there’s a sense that there’s no going back.

Where Walt and James diverge, as villains, it’s how and why they make their choices. Walt becomes Heisenberg because he think he has to, first for his family and later for selfish reasons. James becomes Saul Goodman because he wants to. He tried to be the upstanding lawyer his brother and friends wanted. It just didn’t work for him. Being James McGill just wasn’t enough.

There’s plenty of conflict surrounding those choices. Part of why I love “Better Call Saul” is how it reveals the steady progression from James McGill to Saul Goodman. It doesn’t happen all at once. It doesn’t even happen in a steady, linear narrative. James fluctuates on his journey to becoming Saul. He even hesitates a few times. He still doesn’t avoid it in the end.

That ending, as revealed through the finale of “Breaking Bad” and the flash-forward sequences of “Better Call Saul,” shows one other key distinction between Walt and Jimmy. While both men complete their villainous journey, they both end up in very different places. Walt is dead or at least close to it, as some fan theories predict. However, Saul Goodman’s fate might actually be worse.

In the first minutes of the first episode of “Better Call Saul,” we see what came of James McGill/Saul Goodman after the events of “Breaking Bad.” Gone are the days where he shows up in flashy commercials and hatches elaborate cons on unsuspecting people. Instead, he lives an unexciting, mundane life in Omaha, Nebraska managing a Cinnabon.

Some might argue this is Saul’s personal Hell, trapped in a such a sad and unassuming life. I would say it’s more like his purgatory. In this world, he can’t embrace that villainous persona that gave him so many thrills. Even if he wanted to be that villainous character again, he can’t because it means losing what little he has left.

Just as he frequently did in the early seasons of “Better Call Saul,” James McGill takes the easy way out. Walt tried that too in the last few episodes of “Breaking Bad,” but that didn’t last. He eventually chose to confront the byproduct of his villainous choices. James ran and didn’t look back. The easiest path, in the journey of a villain, is often a coward’s path.

Whether or not James McGill escapes his purgatory or continues wallowing in obscurity remains to be seen. The fact he ends up in this state after undergoing this transformation into Saul Goodman reveals another critical component to the villain’s journey. While the hero ultimately triumphs, the villain eventually loses. It doesn’t always end with them going to jail, but they often endure a less-than-desirable fate.

Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” are both great shows that set a new standard for depicting the evolution of a character into a villain. I won’t claim that “Better Call Saul” is superior to its predecessor, if only because the story isn’t finished. It does, however, accomplish something every bit as remarkable as the story of Walter White.

The process of becoming a villain is a steady, inconsistent journey full of many complications and tough choices. Walter White and James McGill began that journey under different circumstances and ended up in different places. Ultimately, they both crossed lines that sealed their respective fates. It’s tragic in some ways, but it makes for some damn good television.

 

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My Frustrations And Fondness With Bumbling Dad Tropes

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We know them, love them, laugh at them, and cringe at them every now and then. They entertain us. They educate us. They amuse us in any number of ways, both with real-life antics and those only possible through animation. They are the clumsy, bumbling, oafish father figures of popular culture. Compared to many other tropes, they make up a sizable chunk of the overall comedy footprint in our media landscape.

Don’t get the wrong idea. I don’t write that with disdain or dismay. In fact, I’m quite fond of the bumbling father figures that make up a sizable chunk of sitcoms, animated shows, and movies. I grew up on a steady diet of “The Simpson,” “Family Guy,” and “Married With Children.” Characters like Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, and Al Bundy have had a profound impact on my world and not just in terms of laughter.

As I get older, though, I find myself scrutinizing the dynamics of these faltering father figures more and more. I also find myself paying more attention to the context and circumstances surrounding them, especially as our media and culture evolves in accord with changing trends, some less positive than others.

Maybe it’s because I’m an adult now. Maybe it’s because, as both an adult and a man, I have too much experience with the larger complexities of the world. I can still laugh every time Homer does something foolish or Peter does something stupid. However, a part of me can’t help but contemplate the larger implications of bumbling dads.

Some of it has to do with double standards, which I’ve talked about many times before. Some of it deals with the struggles/inexperience in developing complex fatherly characters who aren’t blatant rip-offs of Superman, John McClane, Jack Baur, or Ward Cleaver. Most of it simply reflects a sentiment that I find frustrating at times.

Think, for a moment, about the dumbest, most hilariously idiotic antics in a show featuring bumbling dads. “The Simpson,” alone, should give plenty of content to draw from. With those antics in mind, contemplate what those antics say about the bumbling dad as a character and what it says about male characters, as a whole.

Whether he’s Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, or a guy you know in real life who once threw up in a kiddie pool after doing shots of habenero sauce on a dare, the themes are fairly consistent. At the heart of every conflict in the story is a selfish, moronic, thick-headed guy who, if he didn’t have his wife and kids, would’ve been dead by now.

The bumbling dad isn’t just the catalyst for most of the conflicts in the show. He basically embodies the inherent ineptitude of men, as a whole. Whereas strong, independent women are celebrated as a trope of their own, the bumbling dad acts as a case study as to why men can’t function on their own. Unless they have a woman and a family to restrain them, they’ll collapse under the weight of their own stupidity.

It doesn’t just reflect poorly on male characters. It sends a pretty frustrating message to female characters as well, saying that women basically have to act as referees on top of being spouses and mothers. Their role, in the context of the bumbling dad trope, is to either clean up the mess or reign the man in before he does some serious damage.

In a sense, the bumbling dad is the catalyst for the nagging woman, a character not nearly as hilarious that can be every bit as frustrating. One causes all the chaos and problems in a story. The other whines about it and tries to limit the damage, often while failing to teach the bumbling dad any meaningful lessons that’ll help him be less bumbling.

Granted, there are some exceptions to that dynamic. Compared to Marge Simpson and Lois Griffin, Peggy Bundy from “Married With Childrencompletely subverts this trope. Then again, that whole show went out of its way to undermine every standard sitcom trope that ever existed. As I noted before, it’s the kind of show that could never be made today.

Those exceptions aside, the bumbling dad represents another point of frustration that has more to do with the implications of character development, as a whole. It’s a frustration that even plays out in other forms of media that don’t involve idiot married men who only still have their limbs because their wives won’t let them near fireworks.

When you take a step back and look at the kinds of roles bumbling dads have in so many narratives, you notice a number of recurring themes that don’t just reflect poorly on them as men and fathers. They also help enable a lot of the themes that reflect poorly on certain female characters as well.

Essentially, the bumbling dad is allowed to be an idiot with flaws, ineptitude, and shortcomings of all kinds. It’s okay that he make a fool of himself, getting hurt and causing all sorts of damage with his antics. When Al Bundy and his idiot male friends keep falling off a roof, it’s funny and entertaining. If a female character did that, though, that just wouldn’t have the same impact.

Even in shows like “Married With Children,” the female characters were never allowed to fall off a roof, get hurt, or get into fights of any kind. Even when they’re not nagging or trying to be the voice of reason, the female characters are treated as more fragile, needing to fill a more specific role rather than explore the vast array of buffoonery that their male counterparts get to experience.

A female character can’t be bumbling, idiotic, or self-destructive. That would imply she has too many flaws. Even in the days before the recent push for more female representation, that was considered taboo.

A female character can’t be the catalyst for a problem either, unless it involves the moral crusades of Lisa Simpson. The idea of a female character causing anywhere near the problems as a man would just trigger too much outrage for daring to hint that women can be as flawed as men. That last sentence was sarcasm, by the way.

This, essentially, is the driving force behind the frustration. The bumbling dad trope basically gives the impression that men are the only ones who can be foolish, self-destructive, unreasonable, and unlikable. Women can occasionally do those things, but never to the point of the bumbling dad.

In terms of character development, that’s limiting to characters of any gender. It means all the conflict, plot twists, and memorable story elements have to come from the male characters. All the female characters ever do is react, recover, or rebuild from the male character’s antics.

The bumbling dad basically sets up the expectations alongside the comedy. We expect them to do something stupid. We expect them to make a fool of themselves, get hurt, and not think things through. We also expect the women to basically bring them back in line again because without them, they just couldn’t function.

Beyond the expectations, the bumbling dad is basically the crash test dummy for all the chaos within a plot. They’re the ones that get hurt. They bear the brunt end of the physical comedy, be it a slap in the face or constantly falling down a cliff. The idea of women getting hurt just as much, even in an era where the push for tough female characters has never been greater, still doesn’t sit right with audiences.

That says as much about lingering gender norms as it does about bumbling dads, as a whole. Beyond just relegating the comedy and the personal journey to a particular male character, it gives the impression that women aren’t capable of doing foolish things. Anyone with a stable internet connection knows that’s just not true.

Again, this is not to say the bumbling dad trope is inherently “toxic.” I’ve already made clear how much I despise that terminology. There will always be a place for bumbling dads and the comedy they inspire. There’s also plenty of room for non-male, non-dad characters to be foolish as well. When it comes to gender, age, race, and sexual orientation, stupidity is the ultimate egalitarian.

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Why Rey From “Star Wars” Is NOT A Mary Sue

There are a handful of character types that tend to evoke a collective groan from most audiences. Being an ardent comic book fan, as well as a general fan of sci-fi, romance, and fantasy, I’ve listened to those groans and even contributed to them. At a time when it’s easier than ever to share opinions and/or voice frustration, these frustrating characters tend to be more vulnerable than ever.

Chief among those groan-inducing characters is the dreaded Mary Sue. Chances are you’ve heard that cute little colloquialism after browsing gaming and sci-fi message boards for more than five minutes.

Usually, it applies to a female character, but can just as easily fit apply to a male character as well, often in the form of the equally groan-inducing label of Gary Stu. Sometimes it’s a criticism of a character. Sometimes it’s a flat-out insult. In most cases, it rarely has a positive connotation.

It’s for that reason that characters slapped with the Mary Sue label tend to be either controversial or destructive to an underlying narrative. Many writers, myself included, go out of their way to avoid crafting characters that might attract that label. I certainly made that effort when I wrote “Skin Deep” and “Passion Relapse.” I doubt I’m the only one who tries to avoid it.

These days, though, there’s one particular character getting slapped with that label and it has been generating discussions for a couple years now. It comes from “Star Wars,” one of the biggest franchises in the history of modern fiction and one of many productive cash cows for Disney. The character in question is Rey and I know that discussions about her tend to bring out the dark side in any “Star Wars” fan.

Now, I personally really like Rey. After seeing “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” she solidified herself as one of my favorite “Star Wars” characters of all time. I wasn’t entirely sold on her potential after seeing “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” but I’ve since been convinced. Rey is a great character and one of the best things to come out of this new generation of “Star Wars.”

That said, I’m aware of the criticisms levied against her. She is very much at the center of an ongoing debate about female characters, in general, and what constitutes a Mary Sue. I tried to avoid those debates after “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” but I feel comfortable entering the fray now after seeing Rey develop over the course of two movies.

Before I offer my assessment on whether or not Rey deserves the label of a Mary Sue, it’s helpful to highlight just what a Mary Sue is. There’s actually not any clearly-defined criteria, to date, and that criteria is constantly evolving. According to TVTropes.org, the simplest definition of a Mary Sue is a character that’s just too good to be true. More specifically, those traits include the following:

  • A bland, shallow personality that’s overly pure, overly good, and incorruptible
  • Flaws that are forced and only ever meant to glorify her purity and goodness
  • Beauty that is either flawless or idealized for any given world, fictional or otherwise
  • Physical skills that are exceedingly good to the point of never facing any real challenges
  • Mental acuity to the point where she’s never wrong, never foolish, and always on the moral high ground
  • Unlimited and contrived access to every tool or resource, be it something mundane or a Deus ex Machina
  • Always ending up with the perfect romantic partner and/or forging friendships with every meaningful character
  • Being at the center of every plot and sub-plot by default

Again, these are just a few traits associated with a Mary Sue and there are likely more. There are far more thorough insights into the traits of a Mary Sue, one of which was done by the YouTube channel, Overly Sarcastic Production. After their wonderful breakdown of strong female characters, I would put their assessment far above my own.

Whatever the criteria, the Mary Sue is such a fluid concept, which is part of why it’s such an empty criticism. However, it has become a more serious criticism and since it’s being applied to “Star Wars,” it’s definitely carries more weight than usual.

With all that said, does Rey fit that criteria? Is it a valid criticism to call Rey a Mary Sue whose portrayal is weighing down the overall narrative of “Star Wars?” It’s a debate I’m sure will continue for quite some time, but here’s my definitive response, for what it’s worth.

No. Rey is NOT a Mary Sue…for the most part.

Now, I’m aware I’m being somewhat vague by adding that little caveat at the end. However, there’s a reason for that and I’m fairly confident that they qualify as reasons and not excuses.

For one, Rey’s story is not complete. That much needs to be said from the beginning. It’s something that I find many debates involving Rey tend to overlook. Yes, her story is lagging a bit more than those of Luke, Leia, and Han Solo did in the original trilogy. There are other reasons for this, but they’re unrelated to the debate at hand.

Even with an incomplete story, I believe that Rey has done enough over the course of two movies to prove that she’s not a Mary Sue. I think she established that shortly after her appearance in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

In terms of appearance, she comes off as someone who could put on a set of clothes from Wal-Mart, walk into a typical high school, and not generate much reaction. She doesn’t radiate the kind of beauty or royalty that often defines a Mary Sue. Even if she later proves to have a special destiny, that basically puts her in the same category as Luke Skywalker and every other legendary hero.

In terms of personality, she’s not exactly gushing with love and likability, which is another key trait of the Mary Sue. In many respects, Rey is somewhat cold and detached when she first shows up. She doesn’t whine or lament about her less-than-extraordinary life, nor does she eagerly jump at the chance to join the resistance when she encounters Finn. Hers is a more complex journey.

In terms of skill, this is where I think most of the Mary Sue accusations come from. I admit that I thought her excessive skill with the Force, flying the Millennium Falcon, and defeating Kylo Ren pushed the bounds of her character a bit too much. Even I was tempted to throw that label on her after seeing her accomplish so much with so little training.

However, when I step back and look at the larger plot, as well as incorporate the events of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” I see that those traits aren’t enough to warrant calling her a Mary Sue. They are a flaw in her character. That much, I don’t deny. Just having that flaw, though, doesn’t make her a Mary Sue.

I think “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” did a lot to help distance her from that label. It did so by having her make a few bad judgment calls while also not winning her battles quite as easily. When you look at the sequence of events in that movie, she didn’t actually succeed in most of what she sought out to do. Most of the success in that movie came from others, namely Kylo Ren, Finn, and Poe Dameron.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Rey failed miserably in her efforts, I think “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” established that her skills have limits. She has all sorts of natural talent, but she doesn’t always apply it effectively. That’s not unusual for real and fictional characters. You could even make the argument that her missteps help really help to improve her likability.

A Mary Sue is supposed to be sickeningly perfect and hopelessly ideal, so much so that there’s no need for a plot since they just fix everything with their charm. Rey isn’t like that in either movie. In fact, the final battle in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” didn’t really involve her. More than anything else, her role really complemented all the others by the end of the movie.

Now, I’m certain there are more than a few ardent “Star Wars” fans with X-wings tattooed on their chests who will claim I’m dead wrong. Those arguing that Rey is a Mary Sue have more than a few points to make and I don’t deny that some of those points are valid. I just don’t think they’re sufficient.

Rey is a great character, but one with some obvious flaws. I would call her overpowered and over-skilled, but you could levy that criticism against other iconic characters like Superman, Wonder Woman, and even Batman. Unlike those iconic characters, though, Rey is very new to the cultural landscape and her story still has room to unfold, as director Rian Johnson has pointed out.

I don’t doubt that debate over whether or not Rey is a Mary Sue will continue for quite some time. While I don’t think the next “Star Wars” movie will definitely resolve that, I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t have to be at this point. I think Rey has done enough to subvert this dreaded label.

She’s still a great character with a number of conceptual flaws. I think she has a bright future in our culture. She’ll always have her critics, but all great characters do. It’s just a matter of how they navigate that criticism. Given the cultural weight “Star Wars” carries, I’d say she’s handled it much better than most non-Jar Jar characters could ever hope.

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What “Guardians Of The Galaxy” Can Teach Us About Character Development

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What makes a character great, iconic, and memorable? Think of your favorite character from your favorite movie, novel, or TV show. Why do they stand out? What is it about them that just makes you want to hug them, love them, and reenact every scene from every porno ever made since 1982? Take all the time you need. I imagine it involves some fairly extensive thought, among other things.

Creating these kinds of characters is one of the greatest challenges that any director, producer, or aspiring erotica/romance writer can face. It doesn’t matter how great the story is, how awesome the action sequences are, or how gratuitous the nudity is. If there’s no iconic character, then the story just won’t have the kind of impact you’ll feel in your heart or your loins. Just ask Michael Bay. Better yet, ask Megan Fox.

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That’s why I’ve often seen characters as the bedrock on which any great story is built. In the same way you can’t build the Empire State Building on a mountain of soft, unstable shit, you can’t craft a great story without lovable, memorable, and iconic characters.

I’ve certainly tried to create those kinds of characters in my novels. Stories like the ones I craft in “Passion Relapse” or “Skin Deep” rely heavily on developing strong characters with strong motivations. I won’t say those stories succeeded. I’ll leave that up to the readers, but that process may very well determine how my career as an erotica/romance writer plays out.

That brings me to the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies. I know that’s not much of a segway, but cut me some slack. When you’re trying to relate the challenges of character development with a movie that has both a talking tree and a raccoon with a machine gun, there’s only so much you can do in terms of transitions.

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For those of you who have been under a rock and/or in a coma, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is the biggest surprise hit in movies since some guy named George Lucas convinced movie producers that audiences wanted to see space battles, Wookies, and light sabres.

The first movie came out in 2014 and made $773 million worldwide. For a movie based on a team of obscure comic book characters that nobody outside the most hardcore of comic book fans knew existed. They are not the Avengers. They are not the X-men. They were the D-list of D-list characters.

The story of how they ended up being one of the biggest franchises that didn’t come from the mind of George Lucas or Stephen Spielberg is epic in and of itself. It might have simply been a matter of pragmatics, given how Marvel doesn’t own the movie rights to all its iconic characters.

Whatever the circumstances might have been, though, James Gunn and Marvel Studios managed to create another blockbuster franchise for Marvel and Disney. For a couple of companies that are never satisfied with just a few billion dollars here and there, that’s saying something.

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The success is undeniable. Just this past week, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” came out and generated $145 million domestically on top of the $427 million it had already generated worldwide. I saw the movie the day after it came out. It’s fun, it’s heartfelt, and it’s dramatic in the best possible way. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s well-worth your time.

In watching this movie and its predecessor, though, I saw something that was actually more remarkable than a raccoon with a machine gun, if you can believe that. I saw, in my opinion, a case study on how to develop endearing, memorable characters that will both entertain audiences and make them care less about overpaying for popcorn.

The best example, in the context of the first two movies, is Peter “Starlord” Quill, who is played by Chris Pratt. That fact alone is both remarkable and telling because before “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Pratt was best known as that chubby dork from “Parks and Recreation.” In a sense, though, the journey of the Andy Dwyer and that of Starlord tell a similar story. One just has a lot more sex appeal than the other.

When both “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Parks and Recreation” start out, both Starlord and Dwyer aren’t presented as likable characters. One is an admitted thief and outlaw. The other is a selfish slacker. On the surface, they give no reason as to why we should hope they succeed at anything that doesn’t involve severe head trauma.

That changes quickly though, especially for Starlord. Shortly after the story begins in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” we start to see that he isn’t just some renegade outlaw looking to steal things, blow stuff up, and swim in a pool of orphan tears. He’s just trying to get by in a galaxy full of rough circumstances.

He and the rest of his crew, including the talking tree and raccoon, are all in a similar boat. They’re not out there looking for baby seals to beat with baseball bats. They’re just trying to get by, making as much money as they can with their limited skills and jaded reputations.

Sure, it leads to a clash that nearly destroys a planet, but that’s not their fault. Those are just more rough circumstances, coupled with an insane alien religious zealot with a big ass hammer. It’s every bit as ridiculous and entertaining as it sounds.

That situation, as well as their lot in life, is a big reason why Starlord and his ragtag team of outlaws gain so much appeal. It’s also a major factor in what made the story so great. These characters, especially Starlord, aren’t born as princes, prodigies, or heirs. They don’t just start at the bottom of the social ladder. They start in a deep hole right under it.

Starlord had a lot of shit luck early on. He never knew who his father was as a kid. His mom died of cancer. Then, a team of alien bounty hunters abducted him and made him their personal bitch for most of his life. He’s not just an underdog. He’s someone that even other underdogs spit on.

That makes his efforts to find a better lot in life, including those involving crime, both understandable and justified. There’s almost no other way for Starlord to pull himself up and carve out a better story for himself. He has to be an outlaw of sorts. Having Chris Pratt’s sex appeal is just a nice bonus.

However, the outlaw persona is not the core of Starlord’s character. It’s never more than a secondary trait at best. Starlord is still a hero in the sense that when the situation gets tricky, his first inclination is to do the right thing. When what he thinks is just a simple heist turns into a galaxy-threatening crisis, he doesn’t need any coaxing. He wants to do the right thing.

That doesn’t just make him heroic. That makes him endearing. That makes him someone we can root for. That makes him someone we can get behind. In terms of creating an iconic and endearing character, Starlord checks all the right boxes and so do much of his teammates, including the talking tree. Given Groot’s limited vocabulary, that’s quite an accomplishment.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” takes that effort a step further by having Starlord meet up with his long-lost father. It both expands on the origins that began in the first movie and adds greater emotional appeal.

The first movie succeeded in making Starlord a character we can root for. That meant that even before the second movie began, we as an audience were already rooting for him. We wanted him to find his father. We wanted him to have the kind of relationship that he wanted with his father.

I won’t spoil the key details of the movie, but I’ll just say that the this sentiment is what makes the story in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” especially devastating. However, it’s devastating in the best possible way because it reminds us how much we were rooting for this character.

We all wanted Starlord, a guy who lived most of his life in the armpits of society, to achieve that happiness he sought. When the devastating truth comes out, it hurts both him and the audience. We empathize with his plight and we share in the devastation.

This is the most potent manifestation of a character that any novel, movie, or TV show can achieve. When it gets to a point where the audience shares in the struggle and plight, it becomes more than just an entertaining story. It becomes personal.

Starlord’s journey might not have been the same as Superman, Captain America, or even Luke Skywalker, but it’s a journey we shared. It’s one that evoked all the right emotions within us. That’s why it was so effective. That’s why James Gunn, Chris Pratt, and Marvel are now swimming in a fresh pool of money.

There are many lessons that can be learned from movies like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and not just those espoused by talking trees. As an aspiring writer, I want to create characters like Starlord that readers want to root for. I want a character whose pain and pleasure will be felt by everyone who reads it.

It’s not an easy feat to accomplish. I’ve made a concerted effort in every one of my novels. I won’t say I’ve succeeded yet. I won’t say I’ve failed either. However, I do feel there’s plenty of room for improvement. I’ll just have to figure out how to do it without the aid of a talking raccoon with a machine gun.

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The Reasons And Excuses Of Character Development

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Think about your favorite character. Whether it’s Superman, King Arthur, or Christian Grey, think about what made that character tick. Why did they do what they do? How did they go about doing it? What was it about those traits that made them your favorite character?

These questions and whatever answers you give, however basic or kinky they might be, is the hot iron from which great characters are forged. You could have the greatest story since the Iliad. You could have a plot so great that Shakespeare himself would lick the dirt off your feet and say it tastes like candy. It still won’t work if the characters aren’t well-developed, compelling, and iconic.

In fact, being a great character can help them endure piss poor plots and come out unscathed. Superman is the most iconic hero of the 20th century and he was once in a comic where he made a sex tape with someone else’s wife. I swear I’m not making that up. See Action Comics #592 and #593. Who else but Superman could come out of that and remain iconic?

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I celebrate the power of great characters because they are, by far, one of the hardest parts in the creative process. As an aspiring erotica/romance writer, I can attest that this part of crafting a novel is more demanding than tongue kissing a lizard after dental surgery. I probably three times as much energy on crafting the characters compared to the overall plot.

This brings me back to the concept of reasons versus excuses. I said in my first post about the concept that it would apply to erotica/romance novels. I may have an excessive fondness of superhero comics, football, and beer, but I’m a man of my word.

Think back to your favorite characters again and apply that concept to their actions, emotions, and motivations? How many of those traits qualify as reasons? How many of them qualify as excuses? How many are a little of both? If the answers are all over the place, then that’s further proof that the character is compelling and well-developed.

That should be abundantly clear because a great character is like an explorer on a journey with no GPS and a map with gravy stains on it. A lousy character is a glorified rat in a maze whose soul purpose is getting to the cheese. One is inherently more interesting than the other and unless you’re also a rat, you know which is which.

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I’ve learned in my own experience with character development that you can’t have characters completely driven by excuses. That would give them the maturity of a 7-year-old on a toy store. You also can’t have them driven completely by reason either. That would make them as bland as robot with no personality or sex appeal.

Great characters, no matter what the genre or style, have a potent blend of reasons and excuses. Soldiers and warriors like those in Greek or Chinese myths are driven by duty. Those are tangible reasons. They’re also driven by more obscure concepts like honor, hubris, and ambition.

Then, you have characters who are students, parents, lovers, cowboys, business tycoons, athletes, and even prostitutes, like in my novel, “The Escort and the Gigolo.” They have reasons that are tangible and useful for doing what they do. They go to class because they’re students. They practice for a big game because they’re an aspiring athlete. They have sex with a lonely housewife because they’re paid to do so.

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When it comes to excuses, that’s where the complexity really expands. Excuses help explain why someone is a certain type of student, a certain style of athlete, or a certain kind of prostitute. Not all students, soldiers, and prostitutes are the same. They have different motivations for doing what they do. They have just as many motivations for why they do it.

Sure, a student is a student because they have to be, but that same student could be an overachiever because they want to be the next Elon Musk. That’s both an ambitious dream and an excuse, but it’s also helps guide the character. Not every student wants to be the next Elon Musk so the way this character conducts themselves will be distinct.

With respect to erotica/romance, the blend of reasons and excuses gets a lot more potent, not to mention sexy. As hard as it is to create compelling characters with the right mix of reasons and excuses, creating two compelling characters and having them hook up in a believable way is just adding more moving parts to a machine that can blow up in your face if you let it.

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Any story can just have two random people come together and have sex. That’s basically the plot of every porno ever made. However, porn isn’t crafted with the aim of telling compelling stories or crafting elaborate plots. It’s designed solely to make other people horny on the most basic level. Erotica/romance has to be ten times more elaborate while still making people horny. It’s a hell of a juggling act to say the least.

Take two characters from my book, “Skin Deep.” Ben Prescott and Mary Williams are the primary romance in the story. They both have similar reasons for wanting to be together. They’re both functional, non-sociopath humans. They seek connection, intimacy, and understanding with others. They able console one another when they’re in difficult, vulnerable situations.

Those reasons help make their chemistry believable. Beyond the reasons, though, the excuses add more layers to that chemistry. Ben was not that attractive at the start of the story. He didn’t have a lot of confidence. He’d basically accepted that Mary, who is described in the book as “a young Carmen Electra,” is way out of his league.

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On Mary’s side of things, she knows she’s attractive. She knows she’s popular. She’s not with Ben in the beginning because she feels as though she should be dating the kinds of meathead guys that beautiful women are supposed to date. It’s an excuse because it’s built on a shallow assumption. Even though others around her completely understand and accept it, that doesn’t make it less of an excuse.

Later in the book, without getting too deep into spoiler territory since I do want people to buy it, there are some cold, inescapable reasons that essentially force them to re-evaluate how they feel about each other. They make excuses to avoid it. They make other excuses to embrace it. In the end, though, it makes for some pretty passionate moments.

The process of developing that romance was not easy. It had a lot of moving parts, a lot of moving targets, and a lot of graphic nudity. That only made it more satisfying when I completed the story. That’s another thing about crafting great characters with a solid blend of reasons and excuses. When you feel you’ve made one, you feel like you just got to polish the shine on Jennifer Lawrence’s ass. It’s a great feeling.

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With my upcoming book, “Passion Relapse,” which comes out on April 18th, I feel I’ve created two strong characters who come together for all the right reasons with all the right excuses. I made it a point to make sure that the way they come together and how they come together feels genuine. I hope those that read it are as satisfied at the end as I was when I completed it. If you can keep your pants on, then consider that a bonus.

Whether you’re writing your own novels, crafting your own erotica/romances, or just celebrating your favorite fictional characters, understanding their reasons and excuses can go a long way towards appreciating them even more. It also ensures that when they hook up with someone whose just as compelling, it’ll be that much sexier.

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