Science fiction summer continues in the theaters with last week’s opening of X MEN: FIRST CLASS, the eagerly-awaited prequel to the X-Men story. The Marvel Comics-to-movies machine knows how to sell tickets. Compelling characters, great story, and lots of things that go boom in creative ways keep audiences coming back for more. And this latest effort is certainly no exception to the rule.
In this case, though, inspired casting and a willingness to allow for a certain amount of moral ambiguity has resulted in a film that goes beyond the usual summer popcorn movie. James McEvoy and Michael Fassbinder play Professor X and Magneto as younger men, each shaped by their experiences from the dark days of the fight against Nazi oppression to the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis which forms the climax of the film. Both actors bring their “A” games to what would otherwise be melodrama, leaving us to understand not only how differently they each see the world, but how, inevitably, they must become opposed to each other.
In the interim, they are brought together by a common enemy, the more typical evil bad guy, an ex-Nazi played by Kevin Bacon. He chews the scenery with relish and gives the audience plenty of opportunity to throw popcorn. And yet even he has a seductive line of argument for the “freaks” who are beginning to emerge in the post-war world with all manner of mutations, both visible and invisible. Join me, he argues, and we will rule. We are the future of humanity.
Of course, his idea is that those without the mutations will live only to serve the ones with them. He’s clearly a megalomaniac. But for the mutants themselves, faced with indisputable evidence that the “normal” world fears and hates them, the idea of embracing their power has appeal. For the man who will become Professor X, ever the optimist, humankind can be taught to accept their differences in time. For the man who spent his childhood in a Nazi experimental lab, Magneto, humankind is full of hate and will never change. Both viewpoints are valid; both have evidence to back them up. And when the mutants must choose which leader to follow at the end of the film, the audience finds it difficult to make the choice, too.
One lesson to be learned from this movie—one that the late, lamented “Smallville” forgot to its detriment—is that your hero is only as good as your villain. The more complex and tormented your villain, the more interesting he or she is. The man who becomes Magneto struggles with questions of who he is and what he truly wants, just as Lex Luthor did. Right up until the last moment, we wonder which side he will choose—good or evil, right or wrong. In Magneto’s case, he does the wrong things for the right reasons. In Lex’s case, he often did the right things for the wrong reasons. (You just kept wishing he would get it right, because he seemed to want that. Then he wouldn’t. Fascinating. No wonder Clark kept trying for so long.)
Oh, and Michael Fassbinder? He’s definitely on my list now. Complex, tortured and hot. Oh, my.
Actions I've taken as a writer. Where am I? What am I doing?
Every once in a while you have one of those moments of inspiration by which the universe just seems to smack you in the head (in a good way). I had one of those recently as I was putting the finishing touches on an entry for the Land of Enchantment Romance Authors contest (New Mexico). I had made quite a few changes in the first twenty pages or so of the manuscript, and I thought I was good to go. But I looked over some feedback I’d gotten on past entries, and there was one little question among the rest that really threw me:
“What do these characters want?”
Now, of course, any author should be able to answer that over the span of an entire book. But to distill the essence of what your hero and your heroine want, and to make that clear to your readers in the first few pages of your book is another thing entirely. And as I looked over my first few pages I realized, despite everything I had done, I still had not communicated the answer to that one key question.
Why not? The biggest reason was that I was keeping secrets about my characters and my plot, thinking that by doing so I was creating suspense. Suspense is important, but this is not the way to go about it. Some things need to be said right up front, bringing your readers into the story and making them part of the “inner circle”. Keep them too much on the outside and they can’t relate to your characters. Share too little of the mystery and they lose interest in the plot.
The other problem is that what my characters say they want is not always what they really want. For example, my FBI-agent heroine wants to solve the kidnapping that is at the heart of my story, but that’s what she gets paid to do. It’s not enough motivation to carry the story. What she really wants is to save the child who has been kidnapped, because her childhood was spent running and hiding from unseen enemies. She relates personally to the child’s fear. Similarly, my galactic-tracker hero is working the case because his friends asked him to. It would be just another case to him, except for the fact that his alien half-brothers are also after the child. Now it’s a matter of personal honor for him to save the child.
Of course, because we write romance, we can always say that our heroes and heroines want each other. But do they? What if they haven’t even met in the first few pages? What if they’ve met, but as so often happens, they seem to hate each other? They obviously want something (and if it’s just sex, we’re talking porn, not romance), so what is it?
You must define for your readers what that something is in the beginning of the novel. Even if your lovers haven’t met, it must be clear they are destined for each other, not just for contests, but for agents, editors and readers alike. Obviously my heroines can't wish upon a star for a handsome prince to come and save them, but both my heroines have had to lose bad husbands/boyfriends (in the first five pages!) before they could move on to the good guys. From what I know of the world, that happens a lot. So even if they don’t know what they want before they meet the hero, they definitely know what they don’t want. The contrast is already made.
It’s harder for the heroes, who are alone in the beginning, to indicate that they want love deep down. In my latest novel I resorted to having my hero admire his friend’s relationship with his spouse, who is also his working partner. (I had to do it without taking the edge off my tough guy, though, and that was the hard part.) The example is provided so he recognizes a good thing when he sees it, even subliminally.
Honestly, it’s a miracle that we ever have the courage to approach the keyboard, given the complexity of what we do. I long for the days when I just wondered, “What would Jim Kirk do?” and typed it out (on an IBM Selectric) without a thought to whether the reader would get it or not. All instinct, no brains! And, um, no contracts, either!