Major Character Fail: Alexander the Jittery Mess

I waited until 2011 to watch Oliver Stone’s 2004 movie Alexander, even though I’m a fan of Stone and a sucker for ancient Greece. Critics and moviegoers alike trashed the film, so I put off seeing it until I was sick last week and needed to kill three hours from the couch. I’m glad I waited, though, because now I can draw a critical storytelling lesson from this failed epic.

Critics slammed Alexander on many levels, but I saw one central problem with the movie: a tragic failure to give us a central character that we’ll want to watch for any length of time-not to mention for nearly three hours.

Stphen Hunter writes:

If you played a word-association game with “Alexander the Great,” you’d probably come up with “conqueror,” “king,” “warrior,” “legend,” “despot,” “wastrel” or “killer.” Unfortunately, Oliver Stone has chosen to build his epic of the Macedonian military genius around a word highly unlikely to make the list: “crybaby.”


It’s almost as if Stone set out to make one of the world’s most storied conquerers as weak and unlikable as possible. With a strong, charismatic Alexander, this film might have turned out fairly well. Without such an Alexander, it’s a disaster.

The first problem I found was that few characters in the movie actually liked Alexander. David Farland once pointed out in one of his free Daily Kicks that in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, one of the reasons we like Ferris is because everyone else does; he’s incredibly cool. Stone’s Alexander isn’t. His soldiers argue with him. His mom thinks he’s a “boy” even when he’s a grown man. His dad nearly kills him and frequently threatens to do it. His wife doesn’t respect him. Many of the finest men in his army think he’s a royal putz.

And you expect me to care about the guy? Maybe if Alexander seemed like a real victim–just a poor misunderstood guy. But that’s not what we get here.

Compounding this problem is Colin Farrell’s portrayal of Alexander (I liked Farrell in In Bruges, btw). His errors remind us that a protagonist shouldn’t make us want to slap the snot out of him in every scene. Desson Thomson writes:

Farrell puts a lot of energy into his role, but his character’s pulled and tugged in so many directions, we’re not sure what to make of him. He’s tough in the battlefield, anguished over mutiny from his soldiers, torn between lovers, impulsive and fearful, heedlessly brave and fitfully sensitive.

Hunter again:

His Alexander, as expressed through the weepy histrionics of Colin Farrell, is more like a desperate housewife than a soldier. He’s always crying, his voice trembles, his eyes fill with tears.

So, few characters in the movie really like Alexander and Alexander himself is a jittery mess. Can we at least feel sorry for him? I didn’t. Sure, he had a complicated childhood. But Stone and Farrell never gave me much to actually like about Alexander.

Alexander says he wants to do good things for the people he conquers, but this feels hollow when he seems to be driven by an ambition that comes out of his Oedipal psychology. Then he actually does some nice things for the conquered, but his men sneer at him for favoring foreigners. Even when he marries a sexy Persian dancer, Alexander gets no dap from his boys.

Our protagonist just wants to be loved, but even after he sexually conquers his tigress of a wife, he whispers something in her sleeping ear (or at least he thought she was sleeping) about her heart being a pale reflection of his mother’s. Meanwhile, Alexander doesn’t have the conviction to give himself to his true love (his boyhood friend and lover Hephaistion) in a passionate way; or, if he does, it happens off stage.

And then he wants his men to cross snowy mountains to die in India, while none of them seem to want to go along with him.

What am I supposed to feel now?

Pity? Meh. How many people has he gotten killed?

Admiration? What’s there to like?

On top of all of this, Alexander just seems bland. Roger Ebert writes:

Farrell is a fine actor, but on a human scale; he’s not cut out for philosopher-king. One needs to sense a certain madness in a colossus; … Farrell seems too reasonable, too much of ordinary scale, to drive men to the ends of the world with his unbending will.

Stone and Farrell gave us plenty of reasons to dislike Alexander and few (either unconvincing or undermined) reasons to like him.

As a writer, telling a good story with an unlikable protagonist takes great skill and creativity. When a story like Alexander’s depends wholly on that central figure then it’s even more important that the character works. When writing about a relatively unlikable figure, at least give us something to like or respect about the character, and at least define him well. Alexander wasn’t likable to begin with, we never quite figure out who he is, and he ultimately meets a tragic end without redemption. So I just watched a movie about someone I want to choke, someone I don’t understand, whom no one else seems to like.

And then he dies.

Note to self and kids: Don’t try this at home.

Editing Schmediting

While roaming the internet one morning (procrastinating, in truth), I stumbled across a great quote from Jenna Morris at Literally YA: Remember, not many people have died from editing.

How awesome is that? Say it again: not many people have died from editing.

This quote really rang true for me because as much as I enjoy editing and re-writing, I have no idea what I’m actually supposed to do. Editing, for me, usually consists of reading the manuscript over and over, changing a paragraph here, a word there, maybe adding in a scene or two. Yes, the manuscript improves, but it doesn’t sparkle and that’s what I need to learn: how to polish the beast-that-was-once-a-first-draft until it shines and glimmers and sparkles.

I’m taking some editing classes with the fabulous Kim Wilkins and I’m learning structure. I’ve learnt to start by searching for those words I know I over-use – “that” and “just” – and eliminate them. If I hesitate on whether I really need the word, it goes and I can usually admit the sentence is stronger for it.

Another editing tool I’ve learnt is the scene map. My hyper-methodical brain loves the concept of a scene map. It allows me to indulge my love of spreadsheets and organising information and yet also provides a lens through which to view the manuscript more methodically.

A scene map lists each scene, one after another. It’s not an outline to be completed before the writing starts, but a review of how the storyline actually unfolded. I have a column of scene numbers (which will eventually be grouped into chapters); next to that is a brief description of what happens within each scene and who the viewpoint character is. A third column is for my notes: heighten the tension here, or develop a relationship better in this scene, or there’s crucial information missing here.

The scene map helps me to view the manuscript more objectively and note where there are problems. Then I can work back through, scene by scene, and fix those problems. If I only have ten minutes in which to work, I can pluck a small task from my scene map and get stuck straight into it. I can’t wait to get to the end of this first draft and start applying my new editing tools.

So tell me, what editing tools do you use?

Four Elements, Part 1, maybe

Okay, so this is my first blog for Fictorians.  Bit nervous, and all that.  New territory for me, blogging is.  But, having agreed to do it, here goes.

As I understand it, this is supposed to be a blog by writers about writing, and that those of us who participate can write on most any topic that appeals to us.  That being the case, I’m going to spend a few words on the craft of writing fiction.  Oh, not on the nuts and bolts of it, the grammar and vocabulary, the sentences and paragraphs.  No, I’m going to wax at least semi-eloquent on what I think of to myself as the Four Elements of writing fiction:  Characters, Plot, Narrative, and World-building.  Others may disagree with me on the composition of the list, but to me these are the big four.

Different writers approach those elements in different manners.  For example, J.R.R. Tolkien, of The Lord of the Rings fame, did his world-building first.  He created the languages first, then after asking himself the question “What kind of people would speak these languages?”, created the world and the peoples (a/k/a Middle-Earth), and only then began creating the stories, the histories that morphed into The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and all of the other tales laid in that universe.

Other writers come up with the story idea first, then develop the characters and the universe.

Still others create a character first, and the story and the universe grow out of the question “What would this guy do?”  I fall in that category most of the time:  a character usually springs into my mind full-grown and full-blown, and I begin telling stories about him or her because I want to learn what he/she did.

Of course, an author is not locked into a single approach.  We’re free to adopt whichever approach works best at a given moment or for a given idea.  However, I suspect that most of us have a favored approach to the Four Elements.  As I said above, I’m usually character-driven, and my track record is that my best writing occurs when I have a bond with my characters.

But regardless of which door an author uses to enter the hall of the Four Elements, he/she can’t exit without having visited all four of them and incorporating them into the work.  There may be a few exceptions to that rule, but every story I can remember reading that I felt was written well and told a good story had all four elements present.

Of course, none of this is new thought.  Reams of written texts and countless hours of discussion in seminars and other venues have chewed on these elements.  And I don’t pretend to have distilled it all down to pure unalloyed truth.  But it is kind of fun to spend time chewing on  them some more.

Now, I’m going to tell you that all of the above was in the manner of introductory remarks, to set context, if you will.  What I really want to do is narrow the discussion down to one of the elements:  World-building.  But I’ve about reached the limit of what I can do in a single post, so I’ll leave that for my next post.  I’ll try to make it worth the wait.

It Really Is All About Me

I’ve been seriously living the Writing Life for six years. Six incredibly long and impossibly short years. And the whole time, every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year, I had to decide whether or not I was going to write or do something else.
artist trading card by heidi2524 You can look anywhere and to anyone to be inspired and motivated. But ultimately it comes down to what you do with the time you are given.

My passion for telling stories is the reason I write. My passion to be a New York Times Bestseller is the reason I edit. My family and friends are very supportive. They accept and (mostly) understand this is part of who I am right now.

Sometimes I don’t.

And that’s when the weakest link in my chain forms a crack.

I’ve read a lot of author blogs and interviews and talked in person to some fabulous people. At some point, from what I can tell, all authors develop a crack in their chain.

Even Neil Gaiman.

Sometime I can spot weld the crack by writing – just get some words on the page, tell myself I only need 500 words on the page, and be pleasantly surprised by the time I stop typing, that there’s over 1000 words on the page.

Sometimes I let the link break, completely, and spend hours playing a computer game. This is my down time, I’m offline, unplugged, eating cheesecake before a pizza dinner and tomorrow is a new day. When tomorrow comes, I hook the chain together with a new link and decide I’m going to write.

James A. Owen said it best in Drawing Out the Dragons

If you really want to do something, no one can stop you. But if you really don’t want to do something, no one can help you.