Characters Open the Mystery Box

Characters 10_01_14Writers and readers are often asked, “What draws you into a story more, the action or the characters?” If you say it’s the characters, many will guess that you like chick flicks, Amish romance, and historical fiction. Ask which matters more to me – action or characters – and my answer is, “Yes.”

Hollywood wonderguy, J.J. Abrams gives a similar answer in his Ted Talk entitled, “The Mystery Box.” In this brief presentation, Abrams offers example after example of what is meant by a mystery box in film. In spite of the many blockbuster action films he has produced, Abrams says it is characters that break the mystery box wide open.

What you think you’re getting, then what you’re really getting … When you look at “E.T.,” for example — “E.T.” is this, you know, unbelievable movie about what? It’s about an alien who meets a kid, right? Well, it’s not. “E.T.” is about divorce. “E.T.” is about a heartbroken, divorce-crippled family, and ultimately, this kid who can’t find his way. “Die Hard,” right? Crazy, great, fun, action-adventure movie in a building. It’s about a guy who’s on the verge of divorce.

It’s no secret that I like well-written science fiction. So, when Steven Spielberg inherited Stanley Kubrick’s, A.I., I expected the usual mass appeal theater blockbuster. Haley Joel Osment was then at his young zenith as an actor and cameos abounded with notables such as Meryl Streep, Robin Williams, and Ben Kingsley. The story was filled with action that ranged from a frenetic chase scene to what appeared to be odd aliens 2000 years in the future. Yet at best, A.I. proved a modest success in the United States.

For me that movie was no success at all but not because the acting was bad or the basic plot hopelessly flawed. In the end, I didn’t like A.I. because I didn’t care about one character on that screen. As far as I was concerned, I wanted Jude Law to spare us of any more of young Osment, and put an end to things in the first hour. In short, the characters just did not matter to me.

Some will tune me out now when I mention the TV show LOST but that’s okay. As a disclaimer – the first four seasons gave us stellar storytelling and characters. The last ten minutes proved coming up with a great idea and end it in a great way are two different things. That said, what propels LOST ahead is not action but characters. Or perhaps I should say – action that matters because the characters matter.

In the best writing, action emerges from character, and not the other way around. If you can create compelling protagonists, you can do almost anything with them without breaking faith with the audience. They can jump through time, they can jump into bed with each other, they can even be locked in circus cages and fed fish biscuits. A strong character forgives all manner of foolish plot decisions made along the way. Andy Greenwald – The Lessons of Lost

Whether it’s The Walking Dead (not my cup of tea) or Moby Dick (same)  the characters drive the action. They are what makes the story matter. That doesn’t mean that action isn’t important but it means little without the response of characters. The mystery box is in the people, not the action. How people act and react drives the action.

In spite of the burning of Atlanta, what would Gone With the Wind be without Scarlett, and Ashley and Rhett? It’s not Walkers that stick out in people’s minds about season four of TWD but the death of a beloved character and its effect on those who cared about him. At last count, about a zillion zombies have come and gone but there was only one memorable Hershel.

So, what story, show, or movie had such compelling characters that you truly cared about the action that surrounded them? Can you think of a story you really wanted to like but just couldn’t find a character you cared enough about to make it to the end?

t.e. (Tim) George has seen and lived many stories in his life. As a freelance commercial writer, he helps clients tell the story of what they do. As a ghost writer, he helps people tell the story that matter most to them. But it is as a novelist that he writes stories for who matter most – you, the reader. Tim’s latest novella, Only Time, is available now at
Posted in Culture, On Writing and tagged , .
  • rhay

    OK Tim, if you don’t watch TWD, how did you know about my favorite character “Hershel”? I still can’t believe they killed him off.

  • There’s this little thing called Google. That and a little research go a long ways. Someday when there will probably be a Netflix binge and I will join the ranks of the Dead Heads.

  • Nicole Petrino-Salter

    Characters make it “real”. Without empathy, sympathy, identification, and/or a visceral response to who they are, you’re right: zero matters as to what befalls them and their circumstances. I can’t think of a movie off the top (except for Johnny Depp’s last release Transcendence which is a rarity) where I didn’t care about the characters, but there’ve been several novels where I had to trudge through them to write a review and cared for NO ONE on the page. Tough reading.