What makes you invest in a character? Is it when you understand their motivations, or glimpse their all-too-human foibles? When they have rich, multi-layered relationships? Sure, those things all help. But what really helps is the all-important "f*@% yeah" moment.
I cannot claim credit for discovering the importance of the "fuck yeah" moment. (Sorry, I got tired of reaching to the top of my keyboard for those number signs and @s.) This phenomenon was discovered by blogger, scholar and visionary Dave Campbell, in his much-missed and totally awesome DavesLongBox blog.) Campbell did a great round-up of "fuck yeah" moments from comics, and here's how he defined them:
The F*@% Yeah Files will spotlight those scenes in comic books that made me as a reader stop and say, "Fuck yeah!" That may not be literally what I was moved to say by a particular scene; I would be just as likely to say, "Oh, hell yeah" or "That's what I'm talking about" or "Kiss my grits!" You get the picture. The F*@% Yeah Files will celebrate the Airwolfness of a particular scene or panel that has moved me in some way.
developed adopted the Theory of Airwolf, in which one describes things as "Airwolf" instead of "awesome," which has now become standard practice across the Internet. Update: This was actually developed by Ernie Cline, not Dave Campbell. Sorry for the mix-up.)
Anyway, Campbell's examples of "fuck yeah" moments included not just fight scenes, but heroes actually being heroic and saving people, and moments of total awesomeness like Batman schooling Prometheus. He later expanded the concept to include "fuck yeah" moments from movies, like Kirk going "Khaaaaan!" and Sidney Poitier saying "They call me Mr. Tibbs" in The Heat Of The Night. (A line so Airwolf, as Campbell points out, that it became the title of a whole other movie. Campbell adds, "I'd love to see a Star Trek movie starring George Takei called "Target the Center of That Explosion and Fire!" And so would we.)
Here's what I'd like to add to Campbell's all important discovery of the "fuck yeah" moment: It's harder to root for characters who don't have them. In fact, I'd say it's hard even to identify with characters who don't ever make you go "fuck yeah."
You'd think it would be easy to identify with a character who never gets to have a "fuck yeah!" moment. After all, most of us go through our lives hardly, if ever, having a real-life moment where we get to say "Target the center of that explosion and fire!" It just doesn't happen that often. For most of us, anyway.
But most genre entertainment, and especially science fiction, revolves around a kind of heightened reality, and even the most dystopian or dark stories involve an element of escapism. (And we think escapism is a form of high art.) So most of us would rather identify with a hero who occasionally has a moment of pure shit-kicking splendor — rather than someone who accurately reflects our own "going to work and walking the dog" existences. Also, there's an element of aspiration in identification.
I was thinking of this, not surprisingly, while watching FlashForward. I hate to pick on that show, since it's already getting so much hate, but I was trying to get caught up on the latest episodes and wondering to myself just why Mark Benford is such an unlikable character. Is it because he's dark and tormented? Batman is dark and tormented, and everybody loves Batman. Is it because he's struggling with alcoholism? Tony Stark practically has his own chapter of A.A. No — it's because Mark Benford has never made us say "Fuck yeah." And nor, off the top of my head, have any other characters on that show. If I managed to sneak inside the FlashForward writers' room, I'd be the person sitting in the corner asking, "So, uh, where's the 'fuck yeah' moment in this script?" every week. Until they figured out where that voice was coming from and threw me out.
You can mope and stare into space and have tormented montages all you want, as long as you occasionally show why you're the man, or the woman. I can take a lot of angst from a character who busts out some moves when the situation requries it. Just look at Admiral Adama — you can cry, puke on yourself, throw paint, and discuss your bowel movements, as long as you ram a Cylon baseship, or give a "So Say We All"-worthy speech. Or jump a Battlestar into the atmosphere, launch fighters, and jump out again.
It holds true for so many movies, TV shows, comics and books where we couldn't get into the characters — the lack of a crystallizing moment of rockosity. Heroes had the occasional FY moment in its first season, usually involving HRG but also sometimes Christopher Eccleston's invisible character, but then they dwindled away to nothing. Transformers 2 had one actual fuck-yeah moment that I remember — when Optimus Prime fights a bunch of Decepticons in the forest and deals robot death before getting struck down. None of the humans got to do anything remotely oh-hell-yeah-worthy in that movie.
And you know, a lot of action movies nowadays have the canned action set-pieces, but nothing you'd resort to profanity to describe. Or even really remember an hour after you saw it. Like, say, Wolverine. Or The Wolfman. Or The Incredible Hulk.
And also, not every "fuck yeah" moment actually makes you identify with a character, necessarily. A totally awesome kick to the head or a leap out of a burning aircraft might invoke a certain amount of fist-pumping and hooting, but they don't necessarily make you invest in a character. Maybe a double head kick would. But really, not all "fuck yeah" moments are the same, and there are certain types that cause more identification than others.
So, for your edification, here's a classification scheme I threw together:
There are really a few basic types of righteous moment that actually increase your identification with a character, or make you want to be that character, or just give a shit what happens to that character. What follows is not an exhaustive list of such moments — feel free to suggest your own in the comments, and maybe we'll do a followup list at some point.
1) The awesome inspirational speech.
This is maybe the most basic, and yet the most vital. Anybody can kick you in the head. (Unless you're tall, and they're short, or just out of shape.) But giving an awesome speech that gets your blood pounding — that requires some mojo. Russell T. Davies was the master of the awesome speech during his tenure on Doctor Who, starting with Billie Piper's cool monolog before she aced the Autons in the first episode. Babylon 5 was also the home of the great "you're fucked" speech, including "God sent me" and "If you value your lives, be somewhere else." James T. Kirk gets in a few of those himself, and so does William Adama.
2) Outnumbered or totally pwned, but the hero still won't give up.
One of my earliest moments of fuck-yeah consciousness came from a Judge Dredd comic, where Dredd is trying to cross the Cursed Earth, and learning just why it's called that. At one point, Dredd is so beaten up and destroyed, he can't even walk any more — he's reduced to crawling along the ground, as half-broken robots try to kick his ass. But he does not stop crawling. That moment changed Dredd from a jokey, one-note "I am teh law!" character into a veritable badass. And all the times Spider-Man is beaten half to death, or dying of an incurable disease, but he still keeps fighting. Or the bit in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, where Sarah defibrillates herself. Any time someone defibrillates him- or herself, it's an automatic FY moment. (See also Casino Royale.)
There's a reason Kirk's shirt gets shredded in almost every original Trek episode — and it's not just to show off the results of Shatner's bench-pressing. His final speech (see #1) is that much more impressive when it comes on the heels of Kirk getting put through the ringer.
In terms of being outnumbered and suddenly revealing new levels of ass-kickery that you never suspected, the gold standard is the end of Serenity, where River Tam suddenly wipes the floor with a billion Reavers. (Art by J. Fury on DeviantArt.) There's also Rorschach's great "I'm not locked up in here with you. You're locked in here with me," from Watchmen. (TVTropes reminds me there's also Marcus taking out a bar full of thugs in Babylon 5's "Ceremonies Of Light And Dark.")
3) The surprise turnaround, when you realize someone was one jump ahead all along.
Otherwise known as the "Batman" category. You think Batman's about to be whupped by Prometheus, the guy with every known martial artist on a CD-Rom in his head — but Batman has reverse-engineered Prometheus' helmet and swapped it out so that the only person whose physical skills he now possesses is... drum roll... Professor Stephen Hawking. Especially when Grant Morrison writes him, Batman is always whipping out last-minute saves that are the result of hours of Bat-preparation. This is also the category that Desslok's "Go ahead and fire your famous wave-motion gun" moment from Starblazers belongs in. And returning to Sarah Connor Chronicles, when John Connor shows up in Jesse's hotel room and reveals he knew Riley was from the future, that's a definite bittersweet "Fuck yeah." You know, moments of raw cunning tinged with bastard-hood.
Also on the cunning bastard tip, there's Mal kicking that guy into an engine in Firefly's "The Train Job," and Korben saying he's there to negotiate and then shooting the lead warrior thug in the face, in The Fifth Element. ("Anyone else want to negotiate?" Heh.)
4) The moment of amazing altruism or saving others.
Six words: "Get away from her, you bitch!" There's also the image up top, via Dave Campbell, where the Flash will do anything to save the flight attendant who's falling out of an airplane to her almost-inevitable death. There's also the half-dead Doctor's quest to save Peri at all costs, culminating in the great "not going to let you stop me now!" moment from Doctor Who's "The Caves Of Androzani." (Who else wishes Davison had had that as his first story instead of his last?) I also like Roslin screaming "I AM COMING FOR ALL OF YOU!" in Battlestar Galactica when the mutineers are going to execute Adama.
5) Someone takes the plunge into the unknown.
Say what you want about the often-pompous Jack on Lost, he's been the king of "holy crap" moments lately, usurping the crown from Sayid and Sawyer. Taking the poison pill meant for Sayid, and being willing to blow himself up with Richard Alpert to prove a point are just two examples of Jack's sudden awesome recklessness. Also: John Crichton jumping into space without a spacesuit in Farscape. Any time someone's faced with an impossible or bewildering situation, and takes a leap into the dark, it's hard not to buy into that character a little more.
But what do you think?
Thanks to David Hart Dyke, Wayne Nix, Robert Meyer Burnett, Ken Appelbaum, Ashley Edward Miller, Kieron G. Farrell, Miguel Lopez, Hannah Wilson, Reece Morehead, Morgan Johnson, Amy Mendosa, Sam J. Miller, Matthew Ringel, Jay Tomio, Madeline Ashby, Jennifer Brissett, Jeff Sparkman, Eric Johnston, Chris Hyatt, Nick Halme, Karen Burnham, Andrew Liptak and anyone else I missed, for suggesting "fuck yeah" moments. Also, I wrote large chunks of this post while listening to the fuck yeah-tastic Interstate 76 soundtrack, especially after my dumb laptop ate it the first time.