Sometimes authors assassinate their own characters. And I don’t mean physically kill them, but make them do things that are so out of character that they shatter my belief in the story.
Before digging in, I think I should remark that this is my opinion. Art is subjective, and that goes for books, television, and video games. What I hate, others might like, and vice versa. Below is an explanation of what I see as character incongruities, and why I think that. It is not gospel. Your mileage may vary.
This is not an attack on you or your favorite characters, or authors, but a personal opinion about characterization, and why I feel certain things in writing don’t work.
Also, there is no specific order, or ranking in this set. It’s just a bunch of examples that spring to mind. Ask me next week, and I might come up with different ones.
Now, without further ado: some character assassinations.
Mat Cauthon in the Wheel of Time
This is an interesting one, because it’s not really the author’s fault. Or rather, it’s not really the authors’ fault. The Wheel of Time is a 14 volume epic fantasy story by Robert Jordan, and an Amazon show.
One of the main characters is Mat Cauthon. He starts out as a bit of a lout. He doesn’t like work, and functions as comic relief at times. Over the series, though, he inherits the memories of the greatest generals of the previous few thousands of years. He becomes the best tactician in the world, literally overnight. He gathers a warband around him, and slowly he grows into a serious character, burdened by a prophecy about his future, and a thousand memories of death and war.
Then, Robert Jordan died before finishing the story. Eventually, Brandon Sanderson took over and wrote three more books to wrap up the series. You notice the style difference, because Sanderson is not Jordan. It’s like different actors are playing all the parts. That’s logical. Sanderson is not Jordan. However, Mat jumps out.
The Mat that Sanderson wrote is the care-free lout that he was in the first few books, not the man he had become. It accidentally reversed his arc, and it’s jarring. Mat has become a kind of care-free comic relief, where he was a troubled war veteran. On top of that, Mat was always funny while trying to be serious, while in the latter books his actions almost veers into slapstick.
I love Brandon Sanderson’s work. He did a wonderful job finishing the series, and what he did was hard, but he did drop the ball on Mat, in my opinion.
Jack Sparrow in On Stranger Tides
The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are a mixed bag. I loved the first movie, but I was less impressed with the second and third installments. The fourth movie, though, On Stranger Tides, broke the character of Jack Sparrow.
Jack Sparrow, in this fourth movie, becomes a parody of himself. The movie is okay, but that’s mostly the parts that have nothing to do with him. He is the comic relief in a story he doesn’t appear to want to be in, and has to be dragged back in by the hairs.
The first movie did a terrific job of painting Jack as a quirky, slightly bonkers character, but still rooted in actual desires and with a character arc. In the fourth movie this is all cut, and what remains is a character who is forced into being a hero, for the sake of… unknown. There is nothing pushing Jack to be a hero, but he decides — apparently on a lark — to save the day. While doing insane things.
John McClane in Live Free or Die Hard
You know what’s awesome about Die Hard? You’ve got your average Joe — Bruce Willis — who is trapped in a building with a group of terrorists. He then methodically takes them out. He has a clear goal and he sticks with it. Yes, he’s put on the defensive, and things don’t always go according to plan. But there is a plan.
In Die Hard 4, John McClane is out of his depth. He has to fight cyber criminals and he doesn’t do ‘the cyber’. He’s a caricature of the man from the first three movies. The characters are all cardboard cutouts — the ice cold villain, the nerdy IT guy, etc. — but the biggest problem with John is that he has no plan. The movie is action-packed, but McClane just does the action stuff and lets others figure out what to do. The man who listened in on radio traffic and methodically wrote down the number of bad guys on his arm to keep track of them, is gone. Instead, here is out-of-his-depth-man, who runs around and shoots stuff.
So, the writers did what Hans Gruber, William Stuart, and Peter Krieg could not: they assassinated John McClane. At least figuratively.
Lucifer in the TV show Lucifer
I loved the first season of the TV show Lucifer. Lucifer — yeah, the character from the Sandman — has locked up hell and moved to Los Angeles. In this TV show he solves murders with the female Protagonist, Chloe Decker. She’s an actress turned police detective. It’s fun, because Lucifer claims he is the actual devil, but Chloe won’t buy it.
Then, season 2 rolled around. I reviewed the problems in-depth before, but let me recap it here. The show revolves around the relationship between Lucifer and Chloe. They thoroughly mess that up in the second season. Lucifer finally has a relationship with Chloe, then he discovers she was put in his path by his father (yeah, that father). Like a spoiled toddler, he breaks up.
So, with one fell swoop, the romantic tension of the show collapses, and the main character turns out to be a spoiled child. Then the show proceeds to him throwing in the towel on being a normal person. At the end of the season I could only shout ‘get over yourself you stupid f*ck’. It was terrible, and I never watched it again. Wow, I see season 7 is coming. Damn.
The Vampire Armand
Finally, a callback to a golden oldie. Book oldie anyway. Interview With the Vampire is a vampire novel from 1976, based on a short story from ’68. Most of us know the 50 year old story from the nineties movie starring Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Kirsten Dunst. It’s one of my favorite movies ever.
I also loved the novels… the first three anyway. The fifth book is quite literally ‘The Vampire Lestat finds God’. And I hate it enough I did not read the books after that.
Let’s talk Armand. He’s a cherubic teenager. In Interview with the Vampire, he runs a theater in Paris. Louis, the protagonist, and his ward Claudia find him after a long search for fellow vampires. The book paints him as a cherubic boy, straight from a renaissance painting. And, in fact, he was made a vampire in his teens, during the renaissance.
The movie did a number on him. Casting Antonio Banderas, a muscled thirty-something as a cherubic teenage boy is… a choice. But in the movie, it works well enough. It’s not my big gripe.
No, Anne Rice herself truly assassinates him in the books. You see, in the fifth Vampire Chronicles novel, Armand sees the light. Lestat, in this book, visit the crucifixion, and finds God. He returns from his journey to the past carrying the veil of Veronica. Lestat tells Armand, who is so moved that he takes the veil and walks into sunlight, immolating himself.
Yes, truly. Armand sees the light on hearsay, then proceeds to kill himself. The vampire who survived centuries, became a somewhat twisted patron of the arts, found love and friends, kills himself for God. A truly ignoble assassination of such a cool character.
When you write characters, be consistent. It can break a story if you break the characters, as I hope the above examples demonstrate.