If you haven’t read the first part of this two-part post, please jump back to last week. I’m going to dive in today without preamble or further apologies for seeming to be acting like a movie critic.
Last week we talked about setting then following the rules of your SF/fantasy/horror story. This week we’ll tackle the other vital element to good story telling, regardless of genre: motivation.
Here’s a dictionary definition:
1. the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way
2. the general desire or willingness of someone to do something
For our purposes, motivation means: Why are these characters doing what they’re doing in this story?
If the answer comes down to: Because if they don’t, there won’t be a story, you have failed miserably—and I mean so miserably that I insist that you not inflict your unmotivated, pointless writing on the innocent reading public. It’s for your own good, by the way. They will hate you for it.
Every single character in any story you write in any genre always has to have a reason for doing anything and everything that he or she (or it) says or does every time he, she (or it) says or does anything at any point in your story.
That having been said, a character’s motivation can take on infinite variety. And you don’t necessarily have to go deep into the back story of the guy standing guard at the palace gates who resists your hero’s efforts to break in to rescue the princess that the guard’s boss has taken prisoner. We don’t necessarily have to know that the evil overlord used to take him to baseball games when he was a kid. The fact that he’s a soldier, who will suffer extreme penalties from his ruthless boss if he doesn’t do the job he’s being paid for is usually enough, but then how much more interesting will your story be if the hero feels like the guard isn’t really giving it his all? Maybe that guard’s sick of being treated like a slave by a tyrant he hates, and is only kinda making it look good so in case the hero doesn’t win the day he has some out when it comes time for his court martial. There’s a bit of a deeper story. But then you have to find a way to communicate that to your readers.
But tertiary characters like the odd gate guard aside, you have to be able to answer for your readers this simple question: So what?
So what if we don’t rescue the princess? Why is the alien invasion such a bad thing? Why are the aliens invading in the first place? Why did the vampire come to this small town out in the middle of nowhere, and why should we give a crap that he’s there?
I hope that most of you are reading this and saying, “Yeah, Phil, duh.” I mean, this is very Storytelling 101 stuff here, but then why do so many people screw it up?
Case in point, our new favorite movie, Legion.
Last week we talked in some detail about how the monsters (people possessed by evil angels) worked, and how inconsistently their rules were applied, but not only was there no clear indication of what they could do, but that inconsistency in their rules set brought out, or perhaps was fueled by, some significant holes in their motivation.
The movie tells us that “God got tired of all the bullshit.” Yikes. So even then, that line uttered by a character who spends the movie telling us she has no idea what’s going on, why, or how she could possibly have anything to do with it, is pretty much all the motivation God is given for killing what we’re led to believe may be millions of people.
Even from God, I’m going to need much more than that. There has never been a weaker statement of character motivation than: “God moves in mysterious ways.” In fact, what that old saying really means is, “I have no f-ing clue what’s going on here.” You may find yourself in situations like that in real life, but for the love of all that’s holy, think about this: How do you react to uncertainty in real life? If you start with, “What is this? What’s going on?” do you leave it at that, or do you set out to figure out what’s going on and how you can stop something bad from happening? If your debit card is declined at the super market and you’re sure you have $2000 in the account, do you just shrug and say, “Oh, well, the Bank moves in mysterious ways,” or do you get on the phone, log into your online banking site, and otherwise start to figure out why your card was declined?
So yes, despite the title card at the beginning of the movie:
“Come, ye Children, Listen to Me.
“I will Teach You
the Fear of the Lord.”
the entire movie hinges on God and his angels destroying the world on some kind of transitory whim. I leave you to puzzle over the theology behind that one on your own.
So God Himself lacks clear motivation, what about his soldiers, the possessed people who surround the remote desert diner?
The first of these possessions we see take place is in the back streets of Los Angeles. An angel possesses an LAPD officer directly in sight of the archangel Michael, who is standing only maybe ten feet away from him.
The question has to be answered at this point: If the evil angels can possess a cop on the streets of LA, right in front of Michael, whose presence they can apparently sense from afar, and anyway they know that the significant unborn child is there in this diner, why not just possess one of the people in the diner?
Instead, God (or his general, Gabriel, and that in itself is unclear) possesses people somewhere outside then hurls them against the diner, starting them outside our protagonists’ field of fire. This one point alone just blew my enjoyment of this movie on the first viewing, especially since it was so easy to fix. All we needed to hear, from Michael (who we should be able to assume has some clue of the fantasy physics involved), is that the angels can’t possess someone who’s within some range of the significant unborn child. This would explain why they could possess the cop right in front of Michael, but once he met up with Charlie the Waitress of Destiny, the angels are held at bay.
Right? That’s the thing: You set the rules and your audience will accept those rules and happily suspend their disbelief, but only if those rules are consistently handled. And one of the most important reasons for having rules like that in the first place is so that your characters and the actions they take are properly motivated.
As the movie progresses, the possessed people continue to behave in inexplicable ways.
Please keep in mind here that I chose that word, “inexplicable,” very carefully. The movie itself fails to explain why the monsters are doing what they do. And I don’t mean in some ham-fisted “Before I Kill You, Mr. Bond” sort of way, but in any way at all, however elegantly obscure.
Why do the flies attack then disappear, never to be seen again? Apparently it’s in order to drive our protagonists back into the diner, but that’s just another example of behavior motivated solely by plot necessity: If they’re able to leave the diner, of course they will, probably separately since it’s established early on that they’ve come to the diner individually or in small groups and don’t necessarily even like each other. So we need some device, however disconnected, to keep them bottled in.
After the initial attack of the possessed old lady, a great deal of time passes before the demons attack again. All of a sudden it’s night. They’ve been waiting around for apparently hours, long enough for our heroes to barricade themselves in, and all the while, God leaves the diner’s inhabitants alone to make their preparations and pair off for bonding moments—why? Because the movie needs to tell us who these people are by having them talk to each other rather than do things, and who-knows-what other priorities: Maybe they had a limited budget for makeup and digital effects, so they needed to spend some time on the single set with just the disheveled actors. That’s reasonable motivation for a unit production manager, but not a storyteller.
So then God tips his hand again by dragging in the ice cream truck guy, who is menacing in a rule-breaking way but easily shot down. After the death of the ice cream truck guy, more cars approach and we see the people inside shaking in the supernatural way that says they’re in the process of being possessed. But if they’re only just now being possessed, what’s compelled them to drive way out into the desert to that very specific, lonely locale? And anyway, it’s dark, and they’re in cars, so our heroes on the roof of the diner can’t see them shaking, but they open fire anyway, blindly spraying automatic weapons fire at ordinary looking cars.
After a big explosion set-piece our heroes stop shooting, for no particular reason, and allow the possessed to slowly, menacingly, and peacefully exit their cars and take up position around the diner. There seem to be dozens, even hundreds of them, but at no time do the monsters rush in and surely overwhelm the diner. They just stand there. Then all of a sudden they’re just gone, and at least one character takes credit for driving them off, though we’ve seen him do nothing of the sort.
The only explanation for any of this I can determine is that the filmmakers knew they wanted a big firefight with cars exploding, and they wanted the creepy thing with hundreds of possessed people silently staring at the diner, lit by flashes of lightning, but they also needed the people in the diner to die one by one until just the key “trinity” of the would-be father, the unwed mother, and the significant baby are left alive.
That right there is a shining example of what not to do: String cool stuff together without the support of proper, clear motivation, and call it a story. That’s not a story, that’s a collection of scenes.
Then there are all the little things:
At the very beginning, when we first meet Michael, he enters the hidden armory through the door, then exits by blowing a (ugh) cross-shaped hole in the wall. Why? Why is he drawing attention to himself? This is why the two cops stop, and that leads to their deaths—so that we can see a possession happen and the filmmakers can establish the child in question. That’s another great example of what not to do: have a character do some nonsense thing that’s clearly contrary to his own best interests in order to make a plot point.
Why do the lights come on and off? Why does the radio work sometimes and not other times? Why does the phone work sometimes and not other times? It seems to be implied that the possessed people have some control over electricity, but that’s again applied only when the filmmaker wants or needs it to be light or dark. Even Michael seems confused by this.
And oh, yeah, just having your characters comment on how nothing makes sense is not a substitute for motivation and consistency. If your characters sense something is wrong, please listen to them, and put them in a story that they, at least, can follow.
Only after Gabriel shows up and it’s looking mighty grim for Michael does he tell Jeep (I think his name is Jeep): “Find the prophets, learn to read the instructions.”
No one, including the audience, is told who the prophets are, though it’s clear that the instructions are the tattoos that magically transfer from Michael to Jeep. This is the secret upon which the entire story hinges: The instructions on how to save the world, ostensibly from God Himself, and I assume those instructions will also explain why this is all happening, leaving aside that all things considered we currently live in the most peaceful, most enlightened time in all of human history. During a time when dictatorships are continuing to fall all over the world, people give billions and billions of dollars to charity, institutionalized racism from the American south to South Africa has fallen away . . . and now God thinks we’re full of shit? Not during, say, the Holocaust or Apartheid, or the millennia during which women and girls were treated as property, or all that time we were invading one Native American tribal territory after another, or . . . ? No? Now is when he gets pissed.
Jeep has no idea what Michael is talking about, and neither do we. Could Michael have spent any of the hours they were together hiding in the diner from the passive monsters to explain in any detail whatsoever what Jeep and Charlie need to do to restore God’s faith in man, or whatever? They spend an awful lot of time bonding over each others’ petty sins, but let’s not actually talk about what’s going on, why it’s going on, and precisely how we get out of it. This is just not how anyone behaves in a stress situation.
Why, toward the end, do the possessed part before Jeep, Audrey, Charlie, and her baby, then just let them drive away? At the very end of the movie we see our Holy Trinity driving an old SUV full of guns. Who are they shooting? We just saw a huge crowd of the possessed part before them and allow them to go on their merry way with but a few random snarls.
And how do I even start to talk about Legion’s final and most mortal sin? The deus ex machina, or “Machine of God” has always been the one thing that everyone who’s ever taught anyone about storytelling in any format in any genre has always warned against. And this movie literally goes there. God just suddenly decides that Michael was right all along, and punishes Gabriel for doing precisely what he was commanded to do by God Himself.
Wow, that’s quite a fickle deity you’ve got there, and hey, if it’s all been settled and God and Man are buds again, why do Jeep and Charlie need all those guns? Like Charlie, Jeep, and I have to assume their baby, too, we will never know.
Or will that all be made clear in Legion 2?
Yeah, too late.