Character Interludes (Or, “Yo, Marie! We Need to Talk . . .”)

When most people think of Rocky Balboa, they think of larger-than-life boxing matches, grueling slugfests against the likes of Apollo Creed and Clubber Lang.  And with good reason.  Rocky, of course, is a fighter, and the movies are built around the pugilistic perils of his career.

rockycreed

 

The Rocky brand, too, has been somewhat tarnished over the years due to the excessive number of sequels.  The sequels have, for the most part, been Box Office gold, but at the same time, they have relegated Rocky to something of a caricature.  With each new installment, it seemed the level of predictability and corniness increased, and Rocky’s opponents became more and more imposing.  Boxers such as Clubber Lang in Rocky III and Ivan Drago in Rocky IV were nearly on par with comic book supervillains.

But go back, if you will, to the original.  When Rocky premiered in 1976, Sylvester Stallone was a no-name writer/actor who had to fight hard just to play the title character in his screenplay.  The film studio wanted Burt Reynolds or Robert Redford.  Stallone stubbornly demanded the role.  Obviously it was the right call.

When audiences were introduced to Rocky Balboa, they weren’t sure what to expect.  The Rocky formula didn’t exist yet.  Stallone had a blank slate with which to work.  He decided to devote much of the first half of the movie to Rocky’s life.  We see Balboa in a smoke-filled ring to start the film, a club fighter, short on skill, but with a fierce heart and a hard punch.  We see Rocky drifting aimlessly around the slums of Philadelphia, bouncing his ever-present rubber ball and wearing his black, finger-less gloves.  He works the docks as a loan shark.

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He hangs out on street corners.  He likes a shy young woman who barely gives him the time of day.

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He’s friends with her older brother, cranky, temperamental bristly-edged Paulie.

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As we watch the film unfold, we generally like Rocky.  He seems like a decent enough guy, down on his luck, just struggling to scrape by and earn a living.  But, this early on, we’re still not sure.  The movie is still young.  Maybe the guy will turn out to be a creep.

This is where a pivotal scene takes place. . . .

It’s night.  Rocky passes a street corner as a bunch of young men heckle him.  He ignores them, clearly used to this kind of thing, unfazed by it.  But amid the hecklers, there is a young girl named Marie, maybe twelve or thirteen years old.  She joins in, hurling curses at Rocky.

He instantly leads her away from the throng, and asks her if those “yo-yos” back at the corner taught her to swear like that.  “Don’t you never talk like that again,” he admonishes her.  They walk down the darkened city streets, toward Marie’s apartment.

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Rocky tries to give her some advice.  He explains that if she continues to hang around with the wrong crowd and talk like a sewer, she’ll get a reputation.  And twenty years down the road, when people ask, “Hey, do you remember that girl Marie, they’ll say, ‘No, who was she?'”  But then they’ll bring up her bad reputation, and the people will remember.  “You see,” the Italian Stallion says. “They don’t remember you.  They remember the rep.”

When they arrive at the girl’s apartment, she seems to appreciate Rocky’s advice.  She acts like she gets it.  But then, when he’s about to turn and walk away, she says, “Hey, Rocky.  Screw you, creepo!”  And she gives him an obscene gesture before heading inside.

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Rocky just stares after her, and then, to himself, he says, “Yeah.  Who are you, creepo?  Who are you to give advice to anyone?”  And he walks off, into the night.

Despite doing nothing to advance the plot, this is easily one of my favorite scenes in the movie.  The producers, however, wanted to delete the scene entirely, deeming it senseless.  Thankfully, their advice was not heeded.

With just this one short interlude, Stallone fully exposes Rocky to his audience.  The fact that this tough, street-hardened boxer would take the time to talk to a girl, try to steer her in the right direction, with no ulterior motive, permanently endears us to him.  If we wondered about Rocky before, we no longer do.  This is, unequivocally, a nice person, with a good heart.  This is a guy who cares.  This is a guy we can root for, and like, and that sentiment will carry the rest of the film.  And the fact that he then agrees with Marie–“Who am I to give advice?”–this, also, works in Rocky’s favor.  He comes across as vulnerable here.  Beneath the battle-scarred exterior is a compassionate man who is just as easily bruised as anyone else.

The scene, in short, is a slam dunk.  In two minutes, it displays a depth of character that some roles never project over an entire film.

And it shows the importance of  “character interludes”–short pieces of a story that shine a light on a character’s motives, insecurities, beliefs–anything that enables us to get better acquainted.

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In The Eye-Dancers, in chapter two, we meet Joe Marma.  Joe is brash, easy to anger, always ready to fight.  On the surface, we may discount him as a simple troublemaker.  But shortly after we meet him, we witness him talking to his older brother, Bob.  Bob, who is everything Joe wishes he could be–smart, desired by the girls, athletic, and, perhaps most important, tall.  Joe, the shortest kid in his class, has a gorilla-sized chip on his shoulder due to his stature.  The scene between Joe and his brother doesn’t really advance the story line.  But it does let us in, deeper, and we can begin to understand Joe a little bit more, and, hopefully, feel some compassion for him.

The text reads: 

“It wasn’t fair, and so often he felt a river of anger flowing just beneath the surface.  No matter what he did, no matter how hard he tried, he always came in second place.  If he heard one more teacher say, ‘Joe Marma?  Bob Marma’s brother?’ on the first day of classes during roll call, he thought he’d tell that teacher to go stuff it where the sun didn’t shine.  It was hard at Christmas, too, and on Bob’s birthday.  What were you supposed to get the brother who had everything?”

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Character interludes, as with so much in writing, can be overutilized.  Most scenes in a story should be there to advance the plot, in some way.  If every other scene depicts your protagonists in small talk or shows them doing some trivial, if endearing and idiosyncratic task, the character interludes will kill the momentum of the plot.

On the other hand, if every scene were strictly utilitarian and meant only to push the action along, a story would lose some of its luster, and we wouldn’t get to know the characters as well as we need to.  Balance is the key.  I sometimes think of character interludes as the hot pepper sauce of the literary world.  Too much, and they choke the piece and cause your eyes to water.  But, in just the right amounts, they add flavor, zest, and nuance. adding to the overall reading experience.

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Because, no matter if you’re writing about down-and-out boxers who just want one more chance at the big time . . .

rockydocker

 

. . . or a group of adolescents who journey across an endless blue void to a parallel universe . . .

parallel

 

. . . there is always a place, at some point in a story, for your characters to say, in effect:

“Yo, Marie!  We need to talk . . .”

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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