Wednesday, March 25, 2009

From Duplicity to Genre Fiction

I spent most of this weekend analyzing a contract for my day job, but I slipped off for a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon to see Duplicity with a girlfriend.

I had really been looking forward to the film. Duplicity stars Julia Roberts as Claire Stenwick, a former CIA agent, opposite Clive Owen as Ray Koval, an ex-MI6 agent. The movie opens with their first encounter in Dubai five years earlier where the pair met, and where Claire seduced, drugged and ripped off Ray.

Fast forward to today when the two ex-agents are now corporate spies working for rival "cream and lotion" makers. Tom Wilkinson plays the head of Burkett & Randle while Paul Giamatti is the CEO of Equikrom. Both Wilkinson and Giamatti have a splendid time playing over-the-top roles as enemies trying to steal each other's corporate secrets.

Are Claire and Ray partners, enemies or double agents? Even when working together, neither one can trust the other.

The story is byzantine and intelligent, the pace is fast, and the dialogue is snappy. My favorite lines from Ray are when Claire is pretending not to know him or to remember their passionate night together in Dubai. She tells him he must have her confused with someone else He responds:
I mean, I'm not great on names. I should be. I try. Faces, I'm definitely better. Faces, I'm like a B, B-. Where I'm good, where I really excel: people I've slept with. That's been a traditional area of strength for me.
So we've got everything to make a terrific film and there I was, every twenty minutes checking the time.

What's up with that?

As we left the theatre, I said to Ro, "That film had everything to make it work, but it felt cold, sterile."

She responded, "Yeah, Julia Roberts didn't have the slightest hint of vulnerability."

And I realized she was right. Not only did Julia's performance lack warmth, I just didn't care about her character. The film offered no insight into what made Claire tick, or why we should bother with her. She slept with Ray the first time simply as the most expedient way to achieve her goal. She constantly games him, like in the scene where she waves her panties at him, demanding to know who he's been sleeping with. Another time, she walks past him in Rome, intending for him to see her and follow.

Claire is a cipher--a message written in secret code.

And without some clue as to who she was and why she did the things she did, the rest was just glitz. Beautiful hero and heroine, great secondary performances, terrific dialogue and a wonderful plot, but no emotional connection.

In the forty-eight hours since we left that theatre, I've spent a fair amount of time thinking about my reaction to Claire and how that reaction impacted my whole attitude toward the film. And, because I also spend a lot of time thinking about writing, it was natural for me to conflate the two.

Readers of this blog have heard me say in the past that I believe the purpose of all genre fiction is to evoke emotion in the reader. What differentiates one genre from another is the specific emotion the reader expects to experience in that novel. Horror fiction evokes terror, mysteries evoke curiosity, thrillers evoke excitement and romance evokes a warm, sexy feeling.

I think one of the classic errors newbie writers make is focussing too much attention on details like events or descriptions to the detriment of the story's emotional landscape.

It's not necessary for readers to identify with the main characters in a novel, but it is necessary that they care what happens to those characters.

In Duplicity, Claire held both Ray and the audience at arms' length. We never got close to her. In the same way a novel without an emotional heart loses me, this film lost me. I found myself comparing it to the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair with Pierce Brosnan and Renee Russo. It had the same sort of plot: two very bright, very competitive individuals crossing swords intellectually and sexually. But what a difference. The fast pace and delicious dialogue are just the frosting on a sizzling romance between two strong people who reveal themselves to each other and to the audience.

You don't necessarily have to "like" the main characters, but you have to feel you know, and perhaps understand, them. Hannibal Lecter and Anton Chigurh both scared the hell out of me, but they were true to their codes. While I didn't understand those codes or their unfailing adherence to them, I had a sneaking admiration for both men for having a set of rules by which they operated--regardless of the consequences. I cared about what happened next.

My advice to writers: spend less time working on clever metaphors and intricate plots and more time creating your characters and helping readers understand what makes those characters tick. You won't regret it.


Wordtryst - Liane Spicer said...

Interestingly, I saw Julia Roberts and Clive Owen together in Closer and my reaction was similar - some very smart dialogue, but Julia's character left me cold. If it weren't for the eye candy (Owen and Jude Law) and intriguing secondary characters (Law and especially Natalie Portman) I might've been checking my watch too.

Cathy in AK said...

Dropping in from lurkdom....

One of the things my crit partner will ask me, particularly if a scene isn't working, is how my characters are feeeeeling (Yes, with the extra "e"s). If I skimped on that then I'll miss the connection to the reader. And that just won't do. OTOH, melodrama isn't good either : )