I was so looking forward to seeing the new Robin Hood film. Gladiator, with the same star and director, had been one of my favourite films of the past decade. A Knight’s Tale, with the same screenwriter, had been another. (Will in Nice Girls Do was very much based on Heath Ledger playing the main character.) It was, for me, a dream team. How could it fail…?
Lessons from Robin Hood: Character consistency
The film opens with a battle siege and one Robin Longstride. He’s an archer, he’s brave, and is the leader among his immediate group of friends and fellow archers – who number three. After the first battle we see him playing the old cup and ball trick on the other soldiers, drawing them in with a nice line in banter. One of them accuses him of cheating, but it looks as if he hasn’t (he could, of course, have got lucky…) and a fight ensues. King Richard breaks up the fight, and asks his opinion of the crusades, and Robin answers honestly. So we’ve established he leads among a small group, he’s verbally articulate, can be tricky and has an eye for the main chance but is essentially honest. This is all important character stuff.
Fast forward. In Nottingham our hero has morphed from Mr Jovial into Mr Brooding. Okay, so Russell Crowe does a mean line in brooding, but it’s not what was established earlier. In fact, relatively little of that initial character seems to survive apart from the leadership skills, and even that has grown to unbelievable proportions – it’s one thing to be the leader in a gang of three mates, another to lead an army. His character in Gladiator had been in charge of the entire Roman army, so it’s consistent that he could command a smaller group of men without blinking an eyelid. It simply doesn’t work the other way.
For characters to work they need to be consistent. Sometimes you don’t win them all – one reviewer for A Single to Rome complained that it was inconsistent for Natalie to give up her swanky lifestyle so easily, when I hoped I’d established that the swanky lifestyle was never the real Natalie, she’d moved away from who she really was and, by the end, was returning.
That’s not to say characters don’t change. They do, in fact, they must. But it must be consistent with who they have been. A shy character may learn to speak up for themselves, but it’s unlikely they’d suddenly become the life and soul of the party. Anna, in Nice Girls Do, tries this, and manages for a while (fuelled on coke) but it wrecks her health and happiness, and she reverts to her old self, albeit a more confident version.
We make our judgements on character by what people do, their actions and reactions. You can, as writer, manipulate characters so they become more consistent – for example, Robin could have shown surprise at his new leadership skills, relished the challenge, then enjoyed his success. That would be consistent. Suddenly waking up one morning as a great leader of men, isn’t. And I don't care if Russell Crowe says he's going to beat me up - at least it would be consistent.
Next event - CHESTERFIELD! 10th June, at the library at 7.30 as part of the Derbyshire Lit Fest. (Details on p 49 of the brochure). And then it's Birmingham on the 23rd.