Quit Supersizing Our Stories and Characters: A Plea For Normalcy

Magic the Gathering Nivmagus Elemental creature card nerdy, weird strange ugly electricity
"Oh, I could totally turn this character into
 a 2000 page trilogy," -Nerds everywhere.
The American story, whether it is a movie, a book, a play, or a television series is nearing the point of irrelevancy.  It's almost as if the people growing up playing Magic the Gathering and Pokemon cards have become the storytellers of this era.  And I don't know if that's more an indictment on us as an audience, or the state of writing, but I'm getting tired of it.

It's always supernatural plots, and alien abductions, and vampire love interests, and sadomastic sex scenes, and pagan rituals, and mind-blowing plot twists.  It's all a little extreme.  Our national pastime used to be baseball. If that wasn't violent enough, one could always go to a boxing match.   But now, we like extreme outdoor sports and ultimate warrior fights where broken bones and blood are as common as swearing in the stands.  It's not just that we as a nation are growing more diverse, that's obvious, it's that we are growing in extremes as to what is entertaining.

Leo Leonardo DiCaprio Carey Mulligan Great Gatsby scene hugging flapper Daisy Jay Gatsby
Leo DiCaprio as Gatsby and Tobey Maguire
as Nick?  Not this time Hollywood.  
And that is sad for the story.  The Great Gatsby, one of my all time favorite novels, is getting ready for its 5th rendition in front of a cinema audience, and I can already say, even though it will probably win an Oscar or two, is that it will be a commercial failure.  Why?  Because it's too normal.  If you think about the plot: a poor guy goes off to war, comes home and realizes his girl is married to an ultra rich guy, goes out and gets himself filthy rich, impresses people until girl finally notices him, steals girl away, a tragedy happens, followed by misdirected vengeance...it isn't a simple plot.  But it has the allusion of normal.  And Americans are not fans of normal.

We want our characters super-sized.  We want them to have special powers, or gifts and talents so beyond what is normal, that we would call them exceptional.  We want them to be overly heroic, and patriotic, and selfless, and good looking, and freakishly strange in a delightful manner. We want our heroes to act cool like James Bond, be quirky like Fox Maulder, look like Channing Tatum, and be as unconsciously dangerous as Jason Bourne.  In short, we want everything about our heroes to be unbelievable. We want these heroes to face innumerable forces of horrible evil.  We want that evil to be slightly likable, but so appalling that it must be exterminated.  Again, unbelievable.

Of the top 30 grossing movies last year, only one could be considered a normal plot;  The Help.  Some might consider The Hangover 2, or Bridesmaids, or Just Go With It, as normal plots, but I would argue those are all farcical caricatures of idealized scenarios. Basically, those are daydreamed fantasies of unhappy people.  And Adam Sandler is so past normalcy, both in plot points and acting acumen, that his movies now irritate me.  It was cute and funny when you were twenty, Adam, but reenacting Billy Madison into every movie as a mid-forty-year-old is possibly a form of mental illness.

Of the other 26 movies, we have five superhero stories, another two have vampires, two have aliens, Harry Potter the child wizard, a drunken mystical pirate, ghosts, Tom Cruise as a super spy, and in illustrated form, a talking: cat, bird, Smurf, car, panda, chipmunk, and whatever Rango was supposed to be.  This is our entertainment.

Rupert Grint Harry Potter Thunderpants farting gas movie poster worst movies ever
Somebody green lit this
movie?  Are we as
audiences, this dumb?  
I'm not saying there's anything wrong with bizarre and fantastical.  Heck, I grew up on Disney movies. I love the magic of imagination, and talking animals. But when is it too much. What about reality?

Are we so sick of reality, that we have to watch bizarre versions of it on television, and hope it doesn't rear its ugly head in a book or film?  Are we unable to look at characters that resemble our own family and friends and think about plots that could actually happen and how we would respond?  Is the role of entertainment only to get us outside our own existence and forget about our miserable experiences?  No.  Shouldn't art imitate life?  I love Batman, but I will never don a pointed hat and seek out criminals in the streets.  Is he a damaged human being, like we all are?  Of course.  But can any of us who have lost a parent due to an act of violence, like Bruce Wayne did, go out and become a vigilante?  Of course not.

George Clooney Descendants movie poster 2011 based on novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings
#38 for gross revenue in 2011 was this
gem.  Real, interesting characters,
dealing with real life issues.  Of course,
it was a novel before it was a movie.  
So I'm wondering what we are learning by all these fantastical stories and horrific plots?  That we still fear scary things, like in Paranormal Activity 14?  When students ask what my book is about, I always lie and say it's called "Normal Activity."  It just follows a guy around as he goes to work for two weeks and nothing happens.  I don't know why I tell them this story, probably because I have some unconscious motive to stymie any excitement around my unpublished book, or because it's hard to tell them the real plot.  That it's partially autobiographical.  That it covers three years of my life and experiences, and how real, but sad events, nearly destroyed me as a person, and did destroy the life of someone I cared about deeply back then.  Real life stuff.  Stuff we don't like talking about.  Stuff that brings up emotions, and is identifiable, and hard to deal with.  Real life is hard to deal with, and yet there is no examples of people acting rationally or irrationally to learn from in entertainment form.  Which is why it's hard to open up to a student and be real, when I'm supposed to be this bastion of professionalism. Additionally, I don't want them to say, "it sounds boring, aren't there any paraplegic satyrs or naked warlocks or bloodthirsty fairy unicorns in it?"  NO! No there's not!  Believe it or not, some stories are about real people responding to real situations in the midst of difficult circumstances, and those decisions define who we are, and where we're going!

Rejection letter query letter unsolicited manuscript cartoon funny sad realAnd it's hard to jot down in a three paragraph query letter in a way that will blow an agent or publisher away.  I'm not a writing virgin: I know about hooks, teases, and wetting the appetite of a reader.  But when you have less than a page to interest a potential buyer, and you say your book is about real characters who respond to ugly situations that define who they are, about the rise and fall of humanity through humor, emotions, and basic spirituality, well, I can see why they reject it.  Yes, it captures the reality of life, in all its glorious and sickening moments, but is that something we want to read about?  A few agents have said they love the writing and the storytelling, but how do you market the "normalcy of real life?"  It would be a tough sell, they say.  Maybe I should just add a zombie-alien and an amish-pilgrim-ghost to get it exciting.  But this is not how I want to sell out.

Sad.  Sad that we have no market for real characters and normal plots.  Sad that today's youth will not see versions of itself and reality recreated on screen or in novels to learn from.  Sad that our heroes wear masks and seduce women in droves and have arsenals of weapons, but little to no actual character.   Sad that characters like Jay Gatsby, or Scout Finch, or Bob Newhart, or anyone from Little House on the Praire, would be classified as too safe and boring for audiences today.

Maybe I'm just weird.  Maybe the fact that I connect to characters like George from Of Mice and Men, or Jayne Eyre, or Fraiser Crane on television, characters who for lack of better terms, are fairly basic, is a sign that I'm too normal and boring.  But I think there is real depth in their normalcy, a depth that readers and viewers connect to.  And maybe as readers, viewers, and appreciators of art, we need to refocus on what a real character is, and get away from this fantastical fairy-topia of imagination and realize that real heroes look like you and me, they just happen to make the right decisions at the most difficult times. I think that's something we all can strive for and achieve, and something we can all respect in a character in a book or on TV.


  1. Great point about how weird stories have become. I wouldn't count the smurfs as sci fi but I'm with ya on the vampires. Normal people don't have much of a market in todays story telling. Give it a year. It will come back around again. Surely sooner or later everyone will get sick of Bella and Edward.

    Unless you decide to go the zombie route. Then that's always cool...

  2. You wouldn't think Zombies were so cool if you had to listen to middle school and high school students talk and talk and talk about them all day long. You'd think that the Walking Dead, and Call Of Duty (and with Nazi Zombies), and Zombieland were the three greatest pieces of art the world has ever created.

    I do like Zombies, but they are getting a little overkill.

    I am a big fan of Game of Thrones, so part of this article was hypocritical of me. I just have moments where I'd like to see some realistic characters again.

  3. Just hearing you talk about normal characters is such a breath of fresh air. It made me realize how long its been since anything of worth passed through my interest filter. I think you're right: the time is ripe for that kind of story to come around again. No particular genre, just real. Fiction real or non-fiction real -- I don't care. Just leave out the mechanical, blood-thirsty creatures.

    I was talking to a family therapist several years back and we got on the subject of sy-fy v. reality. I explained how I can't believe how my whole family, except for me, is enamored with the make-believe. She told me something that I will never forget: Generally speaking, people who grew up in "normal" homes are fans of sy-fy. They appreciate the release that fantasy gives them. But for individuals who have suffered chronic abuse, real, normal, everyday stories are a fantasy for them.

    Anyway, I'd like to know where she got her info because it would be interesting to read more on it.

  4. That is an interesting theory. I too, would like to see the evidence for those generalizations. I can say, from simple observation of a number of years of teaching, that the kids who enjoy fantasy are also usually very intelligent but not the most social kids. Again, this is an observation, but I wonder if the insular nature of these kids, is from some source of abuse or alienation from peers that allows them to find excitement or escapism in fantasy stories.

    I have found that many of my lower income/suspected abuse/chaotic life kids, that non-fiction is generally more exciting and relevant to them. Stories like Farewell From Manzanar, or House on Mango Street, that they also like reading stories of other people's triumph over real issues and problems. I believe there is so little hope in their own stories, that they want to believe others who have gone through similar issues, escaped or overcame them.

    That's part of the reason I wrote my novel, not only because I HAD to say it, but also because I think others will find themselves and see the HOPE that is portrayed in the midst of chaos and trials.

    Thanks for commenting.

    1. Note to self: Proof-read your own comments before posting them. Sorry about that middle paragraph.

  5. In defense of my 14-year-old-self who once told you that I didn't like fantasy novels at all, but preferred autobiographical books... well, that's all I have to say about that... :)

  6. Natalie, that can be explained in the overall amount of emotional abuse I put you through for not being competitive at sports. You lashed out by reading autobiographies.

    I don't know, I'm waffling on the whole subject now. Maybe I should write some outlandish story with freak characters so that I feel normal about myself.


    1. Just write a normal story in a post apocalyptic setting. People will eat it up.

  7. Well, you KNOW I totally concur with all these sentiments. And speaking of extremes, I would probably go to the OTHER extreme--the slower the movie, the better, and just a lot of characterization. I know this is way too far for your brain, but I saw a movie called "Babette's Feast" and the whole thing was about peasants preparing a dinner and eating it. Here's a good mix of a little enchantment and character-development: "Enchanted April." Get these on Netflix, I dare you.

    By the way, along these lines, what movies would you recommend that fit more into what you're talking about?

  8. Dan in Real Life was a good, normal flick with adequate characterization, and a believable, yet, interesting plot.