Thursday, August 21, 2014

Complexity Begets Charm

Giamatti and Church in Sideways.
Giamatti and Curch in Sideways.
Today's post is reblogged (with permission) from

It took me ten years to finally get around to watching the quirky 2004 bromance Sideways, starring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Hayden Church, Virginia Madsen, and the ever-piquant Sandra Oh. While the film does many things well and is, on the whole, watchable, it's also the kind of highly forgettable flick that will spawn no sitcoms, inspire no remakes, prompt no sequels, but in all likelihood simply linger in cable purgatory for untold aeons, to perplex future millions.

One of the film's main characters is not a person but a thing: wine. (Stop. There's Lesson No. 1. Are you making at least one thing into a character?) Two buddies go on a road trip (and try to get laid) before one of them has to appear at his wedding; that's the logline. (Already forgettable, right?) But the road trip involves winery-hopping, and we get to watch and listen as characters constantly fuss over wines, swirling them, sipping them, describing their "sturdiness" or their spicy oakiness, or their past-their-peakness, etc., to the point where you want to reach for a paper bag and puke up something well past its primeness.

One of the failings of the movie, IMHO, is that for all the wine talk, it failed to draw parallels between characteristics of wine and themes of the story. The opportunities for synergistic symbolisms was (dare I say) ripe. They mostly went (dare I say) wasted.

But the script (by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor) did do a lot of things right, and I suspect Rex Pickett, in writing the novel on which the film is based, did even more of those things right. I'm talking mostly about character development. The characters could easily have been cardboard cutouts, stereotypical bachelor-buddies, and in some ways they were, of course; but below the surface-level depictions lurked dark, thwarted dreams, conflicting desires, countervailing motivations, self-doubts, under-realized virtues, and unexpected flaws as well as unexpected behaviors. All of these sorts of things make the characters more believable (if not always more sympathetic), and that's what a reader or a viewer wants: real people with real faults, conflicting desires, complex agendas, the capacity for change (maybe only in some ways, not in all ways); and a capacity for optimism, despite an overlay of gloom. (In Sideways, the Giamatti character is a depressed school teacher whose novels keep getting rejected.)

A character with no faults is a caricature. No real human being is all good or all bad. Hitler had a dog, for crying out loud. (Of course, he famously euthanized it in the end.)

Just as a wine can have many small flaws and still exude charm, so can (and should) the characters in your story. Give all your characters real flaws, along with inner turmoil. Be sure your villain is not one-hundred-and-ten-percent villainous; give him or her some endearing qualities, and show him to have inner doubts as well.

And by the end of the story, force the characters to confront some demons. Force them to change, or at least consider what they lost by not changing.

People are complex, in the real world. Make it so in your story-world.

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