Why Your Characters Need Variety: A Lesson from the Elseworlds Crossover

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ve probably gathered that I enjoy a good superhero story, so it should come as no surprise that I tuned in for the CW’s Arrowverse Crossover special Elseworlds this week. For those of you unfamiliar with this special, Elseworlds is a three-night special event crossover involving three of the CW channel’s superhero shows: The FlashArrow, and Supergirl.

The crossover event has become an annual thing for the CW, starting in 2014 with just Arrow The Flash, then getting bigger the following year as the launching pad for the third series Legends of Tomorrow, and finally incorporating Supergirl in 2016 after the show moved from CBS to the CW. I reviewed last year’s Crisis on Earth-X well, and while I don’t think that Elseworlds topped it, it was a pretty close second.

Last year I commended the writers for being able to squeeze so many character moments into a story headlining 20+ characters. This year, they opted to take Legends of Tomorrow out of the mix, allowing the time and space for the other shows’ characters to shine a little more.

The plot followed Oliver Queen (the Green Arrow) and Barry Allen (the Flash) as they try to sort out what has gone wrong with reality to swap their identities, giving Oliver Barry’s life and super-speed, and Barry Oliver’s life and combat/archery skills. Because no one else on their Earth seems to realize that this is backwards, they travel to Earth-38 to bring back their friend Kara Danvers (Supergirl) to prove they’re not crazy.

What’s interesting about how they chose to do this body-swap (more Quantum Leap than Freaky Friday—a running joke throughout) is that because Barry & Oliver swapped lives, not bodies, the actors are still playing their same character; it’s the characters that have to act more like each other in order to keep up appearances and learn to adapt to their swapped skill sets. Oliver describes his heroism as coming from a place of anger and determination, allowing him to do necessary but difficult things, something Barry has to channel in order to dislocate his thumb to get out of a set of handcuffs; Barry explains that his super-speed feats tend to come more from a place of excitement and joy in being in the moment, which Oliver realizes as he manages to phase them both out of their holding cell while laughing at Barry.

If you watch Arrow, it might come as a bit of surprise to hear that Oliver Queen was laughing. As I texted my brother to share some of the highlights later, his sarcastic reply was “Booo, Oliver needs to be a stick in the mud,” because that’s unfortunately how his character is so often written. And there’s nothing wrong with serious, tortured, life-and-death Oliver—the trouble is not giving him space to be anything else. Elseworlds finally showcased lighter aspects of his personality for more than just one line, and I found myself more interested in an Oliver Queen storyline than I have been in about four seasons. A varied character is interesting. A varied character has depth. This makes audiences care.

Now, how does one show off a character’s many sides? You vary their circumstances of course! Part of why Elseworlds and all the past crossovers were so successful in giving us these satisfying character moments is because they put the characters in circumstances we don’t usually see them in, which both displays traits we didn’t necessarily notice about them and proves those traits we do know are core personality elements. For instance, in part two Oliver uses his super-speed to steal from the Gotham police department. Barry questions his action, saying, “You stole from the police?” and Oliver replies, “No, the Flash did,” leaving Barry visibly irritated. Not a major moment, but it utilizes the power-swap to show a less-seen side of Oliver (a snarky sense of humor) and an unchangeable trait of Barry’s (his moral code).

But you don’t have to do anything so drastic as body-swap to put your characters in varied circumstances. Often it’s as simple as putting them in a room with different people than usual. In part one, Oliver spends the beginning of the episode with Team Flash—while he does know most of these people, he doesn’t usually spend much time with them, and I don’t know that he’s ever done so without Barry present. It’s a different dynamic. And while I wouldn’t have called Team Flash touchy-feely before now, it definitely comes across in how Oliver reacts to them. Also, before Oliver figures out what exactly happened, you see him really make an effort to be Barry for the team instead of telling them immediately that something is wrong and causing them worry, even going as far as telling Iris (Barry’s wife) he loves her so he doesn’t hurt her feelings, displaying a level of compassion and sensitivity we don’t get to see much on Arrow.

Variation is key! Your characters don’t have to react the same way to every situation. They don’t even have to react the same way to the same situation if they learned something the first time around. And if you get stuck, don’t be afraid to put your characters in circumstances outside their norm; you might just learn something about them that will not only make them more interesting characters, but make you a better writer.

 

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