Sunday, March 24, 2013

Plinkett Test

I'm about to do something unfair.

Under no circumstances click on the following link unless you have two hours to kill and want to see an amazing takedown and analysis of the Star Wars prequels, during which you will alternately wince in horror and laugh uproariously depending on your own personal damage.

The Plinkett reviews (of which there are more—that's the second unfair thing I'll do today, tell you there are more of these) are one of my favorite guides to how movies, and stories in general, can go wrong.  This also makes them a good resource for figuring out how to make stories go right.

About twenty minutes in, the reviewer analyzes characterization problems in Star Wars: Episode I compared to the original trilogy.  He gives some friends a simple test—describe a given character from the original trilogy without using their name, physical description, or job.  Then do the same for a character in the prequel trilogy.  Han Solo, Obi Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, all prompt excited responses, and dead-on descriptions.  When we get to the prequel trilogy, the interviewees umm and aaah all over the place.

When I first watched the Plinkett Review a couple years ago (yes, dear reader, I've watched these multiple times, and no, I'm not sure what that says about myself), that test stuck with me.  Afterward, editing, I posed the question to myself: could I describe my characters without reference to their job, name, or appearance?  We remember characters who pass—Han Solo, Ellen Ripley, Marian Ravenwood, Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, Phillip Marlowe, Aerin Firehair, heck, even Humbert Humbert—while those who fail slip away into memory.

(Failing isn't necessarily a bad thing if your main character isn't the point of your story.  The narrator of Kafka's Penal Colony doesn't pass this test.  The Officer, though, does…)

Whatever you think of the Plinkett reviews as a whole, I think this test is useful for structural and character edits.  What about you?  How do you test your characters?  What happens when one doesn't hold up?


A. M. Perkins said...

I refer to my personal character mantra - especially necessary as the cast of a novel gets larger - as "Give Them Purple Hair" (TM) :-)

In older anime, characters were given wildly different hair colors to make them easy to differentiate (especially important since the inexperienced animators/character designers sometimes couldn't draw them distinctively enough).

I feel if you give your character some trait - an interesting hobby, a physical characteristic, a way of talking, anything at all - that singles them out as unique, it makes it easier to build them into 3D characters since the audience remembers them more readily and isn't left going "who is that again?"

Max Gladstone said...

Hooks like that are very helpful! At the same time, though, there needs to be something beneath that hook, to give it context & meaning. That's why I like the Plinkett test so much: it gets at the fact that "Queen with Silly Hairdo," while useful, is not enough to give Queen Amidala character.

Rachel Searles said...

Aw, curse you--I'm totally hooked on these reviews now. Goodbye, productivity!

A. M. Perkins said...

Indeed - I didn't mean to imply that was the only thing needed. The "build them into 3D characters" part at the end is definitely what I feel is most important ;-)

For a real world example of what I was trying to say, there was a book I read last year that had at least seven characters who showed up in a scene, said some very generic things that did nothing to distinguish them as individuals, then disappeard for more than 100 pages. When one of them showed up later, the reader was supposed to be all shocked - "What?! Why is [Bobby] over with the bad guys?! The horror!"

Problem was, I couldn't remember who [Bobby] was to save my life. I had to flip back through the book looking for him to figure out what was going on. If the dude had done something - anything - to make himself stand out earlier, I would have remembered him and his future appearances would have built on that, thus making it easier for him to become a 3D character.