If we make a character witty or brilliant or a deadly jeet kun do master or pretty much anything out of the ordinary, one of the challenges is proving it to the audience.
This was brought home to me when I saw the Jennifer Love Hewitt movie If Only a few weeks back for the time-travel book. The plot concerns a man getting to live the last day of his girlfriend’s life over again so that he can let her know how much he loves her (first go-round it wasn’t a good day for her, even before getting hit by a car). And when the fatal hour arrives, he manages to take the fatal accident for her. Inspired by his love, she becomes the singer/songwriter she’s always wanted to be but never had the courage to before (earlier in the movie he coaxed her to perform on stage).
The trouble with a plot like this is, it requires us to buy into the idea that Hewitt’s songs and singing are something special. And they’re not—the singing’s unremarkable and the love songs are just glossy syrup, like a bad Celine Dion imitation. The same problem bedeviled the old Winona Ryder film Reality Bites, in which she’s an aspiring filmmaker working on a movie about herself and her friends transitioning from college to the real world. We’re supposed to think there’s something special and charming and true-to-life about it (at least I think we are) but it’s actually just a home movie of people talking to the camera. Nothing to care about.In print, of course, we can hand-wave stuff like beautiful singing or musical performance and all kinds of other things. Martial arts too: there’s a scene in the Doc Savage novel The Mental Wizard (which I should be posting about soon) where a woman takes out four men with some rapid moves, and that’s about all the detail we get. It’s all we need (although of course anyone who knows martial arts can go into great detail about it. For that matter anyone who knows singing or music deeply enough can detail how beautiful it is, but I don’t think the details are essential).On the other hand, a character who’s witty or sophisticated needs to sound that way, in print or on screen. A character who’s supposed to have deep insights or radical views needs to sound that way, and frequently they don’t (as I’ve discussed before). And some things are actually easier to capture on screen—I find it much easier to believe a person is incredibly charming or charismatic if they’re standing right there, radiating charisma, than if an author tells me about it.One way around this is to capture other characters reactions, though this isn’t always convincing either: if someone’s ideas are trite, people gasping in awe won’t make them sound any deeper. Another approach is to make the quality less of an issue. In Reality Bites, Winona Ryder and Ben Stiller break up over her movie, because he (as an MTV-type network executive) had it edited without her consent. That’s a major breach of trust, so whether he made it better, whether it was ever any good is irrelevant to the plot. It’s still a flaw but not as much as If Only, where the movie clearly wants us to believe in Hewitt’s budding genius.