Jan 22 2009

Today’s Pet Peeve: Unearned Reputations

Published by at 3:28 am under Writing Articles

Be careful when it comes to giving characters unearned reputations.

It’s insufferable when we hear something about a character and see something else entirely.   For example, everyone in Heroes tells the audience that Mohinder is a brilliant scientist, but his most notable act of science has been to inject himself with an entirely untested formula that accidentally turns him into a monster.  That makes both the character and the writers come off poorly.  (Mohinder’s a moron, the plot hinges on total stupidity and the writers clearly don’t know anything about scientific testing, etc).  If you need your cast to act very uncharacteristically, at least give us a reason why.  For example, if Mohinder’s life had been in immediate jeopardy, it’d be more plausible that he would have taken the formula without testing it first.

Characters that have unearned reputations tend to be unsatisfying and hard to like.  For example, the Sentry has been incessantly hyped up as one of the most powerful beings in the Marvel Universe and yet gets manhandled by the Hulk.  (For a brief sample of how much this has made Marvel fans loathe the Sentry, please read this.)

Question:  But won’t it be funny if the readers are told that John is a crack assassin but he’s actually a bumbling oaf?

Actually, probably not… it’s not a great comic setup.  However, it might work if you were absolutely clear that his reputation is incorrect.  For example, Drillbit Taylor humorously contrasts DT’s incompetence and his wild claims of military glory.  He was discharged for unauthorized heroism!

If you plan to go down this comic route, two elements are particularly important.  First, you need a good reason why the character has this incorrect reputation.  For DT, his fake reputation was crucial to the con-job he was trying to pull on the kids.  Second, the other characters should notice when the character doesn’t act like someone of his reputation should.  Many of the funniest lines in that movie came when DT had to explain away something unprofessional they had just seen.

6 responses so far

6 Responses to “Today’s Pet Peeve: Unearned Reputations”

  1. Ragged Boyon 29 Jan 2009 at 9:23 am

    I won’t have a problem with this throughout the series. I’m sure I can portray Adrian as a skilled actor (beginning with him pretending to be beaten up to get rid of an officer to use the fire exit).

  2. B. Macon 29 Jan 2009 at 2:59 pm

    Hmm. Yeah, it might be a problem if Adrian is supposed to be a great actor but doesn’t come across that way. I don’t think acting talent would be that easy to portray. I suppose he’d probably have more expressive gestures, a wider range of facial expressions, a ton of personality and confidence, etc.

    Pretending to get beaten up to distract someone is kind of unusual. I like it. I think it’s a smooth way to introduce the character in his element before the weirdness starts.

  3. Ragged Boyon 29 Jan 2009 at 3:14 pm

    I hope to give him the drama king personality without making him annoying. He’s definitely a character, I like your suggestion for expressive gestures.

  4. Dforceon 10 Apr 2009 at 2:15 pm

    I think you used “himself” twice in a row on the first full paragraph.

  5. B. Macon 10 Apr 2009 at 2:23 pm

    Ah, thanks. Good call.

  6. Dforceon 10 Apr 2009 at 2:31 pm

    No prob.

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