Kill Gilligan! or Why Do Characters Do That?

From 1964 through 1967, Gilligan’s Island was produced and broadcast. I saw the show in syndication when I was a kid.

Virtually every one of the 98 episodes involved the castaways attempting to get rescued with Gilligan screwing it up somehow. The question wasn’t if he’d screw it up but how.

Now, the show was a comedy, a farce really. It was mindless entertainment. It was absurd. Taken for that, the storytelling was fine.

However, if you’re writing this story and not doing it as a comedy, what would the characters really do? At a minimum, they’d tie Gilligan to a palm tree until they were rescued. Perhaps one of them would kill Gilligan. Does that sound harsh? How many attempts would the sanest person see fail because of one man’s idiocy until he helped that man meet with an accident?

Getting the characters’ motivations right is key. The POV character has to be consistent with his actions because we’re privy to his thoughts. The protagonist’s motivation has to be consistent with his actions because we’re rooting for him.

Most writers get this right, particularly the protagonist. But the antagonist seems to get overlooked, even in Hollywood productions. Take the new Battlestar Galactia as an example. In the opening credits they said the Cylons had a plan. For a time, as the story progressed, that seemed to be true. But, instead of destroying humanity as was their rationale in the pilot, they occupied them to start the 3rd season.

So much for the plan… The writers actually wrote and filmed a 90 minutes movie to explain the Cylons’ change in motivation. The reality of the situation is that to continue the series with new and interesting stories, they needed more from the antagonist than to simply kill.

It’s never made sense to me why spy movies like James Bond always capture Bond. Sometimes they talk to him until he escapes (what The Incredibles called monologueing) or just leave him alone and he escapes. From the antagonist’s perspective, the more rational decision is to kill him immediately.

While this sort of thing works for James Bond movies, it doesn’t work for the majority of stories. The readers see through it.

For the reader to stay immersed in the story, they have to understand why the characters are doing what they’re doing. A great example of this done to perfection is The Fugitive. The viewer would believe that Gerard being law enforcement would want to capture the real murderer. At one point, Kimble says he didn’t kill his wife. Gerard says he doesn’t care. That sells his motivation–he’s interested in capturing a fugitive, not figuring out if the fugitive is innocent or guilty.

As writers, to keep the story believable so the readers remain engaged, we have to get all of the characters’ motivations and actions to line up.

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One Response to Kill Gilligan! or Why Do Characters Do That?

  1. Kelly Moore says:

    Those poor people…..

    It's true, I as a reader must connect to the character in a real way – whether I love 'em or hate 'em – and I notice when there are disconnects.

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