Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Lessons From Austin Powers

This week I finished reading a book I couldn't wait to get my hands on, because I loved the last book I'd read by the same author. It took me a couple months to read, though--sure, I've had other stuff going on to distract me, but I didn't have that can't-put-it-down feeling I get when I really, really love a book. You know the ones, where you look up at the end and notice your house is a mess and your family is hungry? Wasn't happening here. 

Although my writing so far has been only realistic fiction, I read all different genres, so I'm willing to do my share of suspending disbelief. Traveling in a spaceship to live on a new planet? Yeah, let's see what that's like. Vampires sitting at the next table in the cafeteria? Sure. I may even spend time debating whether I'd prefer a werewolf boyfriend or a vampire boyfriend. (Not saying I've done that. But if I did, I'd pick werewolf.) 

But in any book, the real-life stuff has to be believable. If it isn't, that's when I start thinking about Austin Powers. 

We can actually learn a lot about writing by watching that groovy international man of mystery and his nemesis, Dr. Evil:

"Start the unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism!" Here's a great bit of dialog from the first movie, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, between Dr. Evil and son Scott:  

Dr. Evil: Scott, I want you to meet daddy's nemesis, Austin Powers.
Scott Evil: What? Are you feeding him? Why don't you just kill him?
Dr. Evil: I have an even better idea. I'm going to place him in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death. 

And later, when Austin and Vanessa are suspended above the tank they'll be lowered into:

Dr. Evil: All right guard, begin the unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism.
Close the tank!
Scott: Wait, aren't you even going to watch them? They could get away!
Dr. Evil: No no no, I'm going to leave them alone and not actually witness them dying, I'm just gonna assume it all went to plan. What?
Scott: I have a gun, in my room, you give me five seconds, I'll get it, I'll come back down here, BOOM, I'll blow their brains out!
Dr. Evil: Scott, you just don't get it, do ya? You don't.

Is your antagonist acting like a parody of a villain? Are your readers going to feel annoyed and frustrated like Scott and yell at the book, "Why don't you just shoot him?" Of course, you don't want your protagonist to die or your story would be over. But if someone's out to get her, why don't they catch her right away? There has to be a reason they miss, a reason for the chase. Does the heroine somehow evade her pursuer, just when he's gotten close? That's suspenseful. Or does the villain have a chance to stop her, but let her go because he's holding out for something more dramatic? That's Dr. Evil. If the bad guys are out to get us, they're not going to wait around for sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads.

"A lot's changed since 1967." Technology and language changes from one year to the next, even. Unless it's meant to add authenticity to a historical setting, avoid using slang that can make your book seem dated within a couple years. If your character's dialog doesn't ring true--he no longer sounds like himself, he's talking like his mom or like someone who grew up in the 80s instead of now--you pull your readers right out of the story. Keep up with what's going on in the world and with your audience so you won't sound like someone who's been cryogenically frozen for thirty years.

"You're semi-evil. You're quasi-evil. You're the margarine of evil. You're the diet Coke of evil. Just one calorie, not evil enough." The Austin Powers movies have no shortage of one-dimensional bad guys. Dr. Evil and is henchmen are funny in the movie, but we don't want our own characters do be accidentally funny caricatures with all the emotional depth of Fembots. If characters have no flaws or weak moments, readers don't feel like they know them, because they don't know anyone who's all good or all bad. Don't you feel more connected to a story when you see what a character seems familiar to you? 

Think about the villains people love, or love to hate. Why is Hannibal Lecter such a memorable and convincing bad guy? None of us would want him living next door, but he's intriguing. If he were repulsive at every moment we'd turn away, but we see his human side too. He loves classical music. He's respectful to Clarice Starling, even cares about her, although they're on opposite sides of the law. (For more on how Hannibal Lecter can help with character development, here's a great post I came across on Suite 101.) 

If we saw Hannibal's evil plotting only, he'd be forgettable or laughable. We remember Hannibal; we laugh at Snidely Whiplash and Dr. Evil. 

Hey, where did that come from? That's something your readers should never have to ask. A character can defend herself with a nearby object if it fits the setting and we're not seeing it for the first time. We have to see the object in an earlier scene so we're not taken aback when it conveniently shows up right when she needs it. We're okay with the henchman Random Task throwing a shoe at Austin Powers in Goldmember, because it was introduced earlier as his weapon of choice, however ridiculous. But if your heroine grabs a pool cue from her car trunk during a fight and informs us just then that she was planning on taking pool lessons, we're going to be confused and annoyed by the deus ex machina-ness of the scene.

In this comical fight scene from Goldmember, some of the objects used as weapons make sense, like the mini bottle that Mini-Me grabs from the hotel minibar, but things like the inexplicable frying pan add to the absurdity of the scene.

Avoid the frying pan.

There are probably many more lessons we can learn from the smashing Austin Powers, but these are just a few to keep in mind while writing and revising. We give our story the attention it deserves when we work to create well-rounded, three-dimensional characters who act and speak in ways that make sense, within a setting that makes sense.

Putting in all that effort isn't the easy way out, but it's worth all the work you put into it. 'Cause when you get it right, it's a beautiful as sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their frickin' heads.

Now stay shagadelic, babies!


  1. Brilliant post.
    You make some fabulous points about character development.
    (And I'd pick the vampire.)

  2. Thanks, LS! You're groovy, baby, even if you do prefer vampires.

  3. great post! I agree, I like bad guys that have redeemable qualities. It makes them more real and it draws me into the story more. I love wondering if the bad guy is really that "bad"

  4. I like that too, Christy, wondering how bad the bad guy really is, and also how he got that way. Not to excuse anything the villain does, but it's more interesting and believable if we know there's something in his background that led him to where he is now.

  5. Great post, Lynne! Love the video clips. Who knew Austin Powers had so much to teach us? For the record, I'm staying away from sea bass, especially if they have lasers on their heads.