The So-Called Hollywood Formula
A while back on the Writing Excuses podcast, they discussed something called “The Hollywood Formula.” Basically, it means that there are three main characters: Protagonist, Antagonist, and Relationship Character.
But that’s not the Hollywood Formula that I want to talk about. The one I want to talk about is something everyone should avoid doing at all cost rather than something we should aspire to.
I canceled cable several years ago, and after an initial “OMG WTF did I do?” period, I haven’t missed it. But because it cut me off from several shows I liked—and also means that I don’t get to watch some “new” good shows—I would seek those out on NetFlix or whatever.
Two of those are Eureka and Monk. Both of them contain a character that Hollywood seems to feel must be present, yet would be virtually impossible to believe in the real world.
Now, don’t we want our characters and our worlds to seem real? Like we could walk outside and suddenly encounter situations and people from our own writing and/or favorite books/movies/shows?
Let’s start with Eureka. There’s a character on that show named Fargo. Dr. Douglas Fargo, to be exact. He’s billed as a genius, as is most everyone else on the show, since they live in a ‘genius colony’ in a mythical town in the Pacific northwest. We don’t know how old he is, but we can assume he was a child prodigy who probably earned his doctorate before he could legally vote.
On Monk, we have Lt. Randall (Randy) Disher. He’s a detective in the homicide division of the SFPD and always seems to be paired up with Captain Leland Stottlemeyer. Randy is a ‘young’ detective, clearly not as experienced as either Monk (an ex-cop PI who solves cases in a Holmesian style) or Stottlemeyer.
Here’s what the two characters have in common: they’re bumbling idiots.
On Eureka, Fargo is often the butt of many jokes. He’s the character you immediately go to if you want an accident to happen or for something to go horrily wrong. He’s the guy who pushes the button that says “DON’T PUSH” next to it. He’s the guy who takes a bite of something he finds lying on the counter, only to have it transform him into a giant moth. Without once wondering what it is. He’s the guy who plays with powers and equipment too far above him and gets burned or causes other people to get burned. Not just occasionally, but in every episode. There are very few episodes in which Fargo doesn’t cause a disaster of some type.
In the show, people get mad at him and yell and question his sanity and wonder how he could be such an idiot.
And yet. And yet, they keep him. He’s trusted time and time again with projects that could literally destroy himself, other people, the town, the state, the continent, the world…possibly even the universe. In the real world, after maybe the second time he accidentally murders someone (I can think of one episode where equipment he invented and set up incinerates an innocent pizza delivery guy…and no one ever mentions it again), destroys billions of dollars worth of equipment, or endangers the existence of life as we know it, they would fire him. Or arrest him. Or, given the nature of what he knows and where he lives, lock him away in a deep, deep silo and eradicate all knowledge of him or his work.
He simply would not be permitted to exist in anything even approximating our real world. And yet, in the fictional world of Eureka—where everyone is way smarter than you—they can’t see the blindingly obvious.
The same holds true of Randy Disher. He’s always the butt of every joke that isn’t aimed at Monk. He bumbles. He makes mistakes that someone who has earned the rank of Lt. Detective should not make. His theories are all insanely stupid.
I thought there was hope at one point when, some time in the fifth season of the show, Randy made a stupid mistake that was going to cost the city all kinds of money and negative publicity. He realizes he should not be a cop. And he resigns. But, of course, Monk swoops in, saves the day, and then makes Randy believe that he solved the case so he comes back and is given his shield and weapon back.
Disher even references the fact that he’s a screw-up during this episode, and in one more where it looks as though Monk has made a <gasp!> mistake, Randy keeps saying, “This one wasn’t me.”
Again, in the real world, a detective who is dumber than custard wouldn’t be permitted to remain on the force, assuming he survived long enough to get fired.
I think that with both of these characters, Hollywood is trying for the “lovable fool” stereotype. It goes back a long way, too.
In the real world, the castaways would have ritually slain Gilligan and mounted his head on a pike in the middle of their little settlement after about the third time he single-handedly bumbled his way into preventing their rescue.
Abner Kravitz would have had his wife Gladys committed after several months of claiming that her neighbor was a witch.
I find it hard to believe that anyone like Roger Healy could ever become an astronaut, given how capable one has to be to make that cut. And a major, to boot?
Chrissy Snow could not possibly have survived unscathed in the real world. As naïve as she was, she would have fallen prey to every evil-minded schemester in Las Angeles. Of course, this whole show was one of the low points of television, so I was reluctant to include it. But included it, I did.
Frank Burns would have been sued out of practice before he was ever sent to Korea, and if he had been sent, his own side would have seen to it that he “accidentally” met his demise, or at least a court martial.
None of these characters could exist in the real world. They violate the rule that a character must be believable in order to work.
Scooby Doo is an example of one that actually does work. Scooby—or Shaggy—is usually the one who foils the elaborate, Rube-Golberg-esque plan the gang (Freddy) came up with to trap the “monster.” But in stark contrast to (most of) Gilligan’s Island, it usually ends up working better than the original plan would have worked, and the bad guy is caught, the mask is taken off, it’s Old Man Perkins, and the gang grooves on to the next adventure in their trippy van.
Sometimes, Hollywood sees the writing on the wall, and fixes it. In the (awesome) show Big Bang Theory, the character of Penny started out to be the ditzy idiot who was the butt of all the jokes and who had no redeeming qualities other than being hot. They quickly fixed it so she became a much more likable character, able to stand up to her supra-genius neighbors, and although she’s no physicist, she gets the better of the boys quite a bit.
Are there equivalent characters in literature? I’m having a hard time thinking of any.