just don’t play eighties music

A few years ago some of my oldest friends and I began planning a trip to Paris for our 50th year and seeing as I am going to turn 50 whether or not I’m in Paris, I thought I’d better come up with a plan B. I am looking forward to having a few different catch ups with friends and family and have a busy month of May planned culminating in my first writers’ retreat on the first weekend in June. If you’d told me a year ago that I would be planning drinks with friends at one of the local surf clubs for my 50th I would have laughed but here I am looking forward to it. I told the event coordinator that my only request is that they don’t play any 80s music.

The 80s holds no allure for me. It was shit the first time and I have no desire to relive any of it. Having said that I am completely obsessed with Cobra Kai (Netflix) at the moment. I watched the Karate Kid movies way back when but I wasn’t what you’d call a huge fan. I always thought the main character Daniel LaRusso looked like a little boy playing ‘grown-ups’.

Cobra Kai is cheesy as pizza! I can’t work out whether the acting is supposed to be that wooden but it has a certain je ne sais quoi and I can’t stop watching it.

But there’s no rest for the wicked. As usual I’m watching it with one eye on the craft of story telling. The foreshadowing is good. The karate is thrilling to watch and makes up for all the cheesy moments. The supporting actors are interesting and well rounded. And as cheesy as the protagonist (Johnny) and the antagonist (Daniel) are, their arcs are compelling. I want to know what’s going to happen between these two men who started their rivalry 30 years ago and seem determined to keep it going despite evidence that they have quite a lot in common. I really want to see Johnny redeem himself after his misspent youth blossomed into a misspent adulthood.

Regret and missed opportunities can reach out through lives like a little niggle or like poison. It’s a well-known trope – it’s the theme of my own first novel. Hollywood has dished up so many redemption movies over the years but rarely does a ‘bad guy’ like Johnny Lawrence get to be the hero of his own story. The villain’s story is usually so 1-dimensional that we cheer at their downfall, or even their death. In the original movies, Cobra Kai’s Johnny missed out on the trophy and the girl in high school and now he’s pushing 50 and wondering what might have been if it wasn’t for that annoying LaRusso kid from New Jersey. I am seriously wanting Johnny to stop being a victim of circumstances already!

I don’t recall if the old Karate Kid franchise ever explained why Johnny was a bully. Hollywood often sells us the idea that bullies and other villains are produced in a vacuum but everyone has an origin story, even Adolf Hitler once simply wanted to be an art student. No one emerges from the womb evil. Like Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, with Johnny and supporting characters like Mr Crease, we get to peek behind the veil to see why they’re such assholes. The writers also flesh out the other characters with back stories to show why they behave the way they do.

I don’t believe that some people are more naturally predisposed to cruelty. Isn’t cruelty just born of ignorance, drive for power, or pain? I hurt you before you can hurt me? I get hurt at home so I’m going to lash out at school to get a bit of power back. I want to be on top so everyone must be below me.

Evolved people don’t behave that way but evolution is hard work. Regular readers will know my interest in Spiral Dynamics and Cobra Kai is a great example of the spiral at work. When we meet Johnny, he is basically a mess. He’s a drunk, getting into fights, can’t pay his bills. Through both his own actions and pure, dumb luck he loses his job and his car is wrecked. He was a ‘warrior’ in high school, pure Red, The Impulsive Self, tribal, egocentric, impulsive, ruthless, courageous, determined and powerful. Through poor life choices he hasn’t managed to make it beyond that and is at risk of regressing to lower stages through alcoholism and homelessness.

Daniel on the other hand is pure Orange, the Achiever Self. He’s been playing the game to win since high school. He and his wife Amanda are setting goals and making bank. They’ve got the big house and the perfect family. I am half way through season 3 and Daniel’s arc is a change arc (see below) but it’s a shallow arc. He is beginning to find his Green, his Sensitive Self, exploring peace within himself and the caring dimensions in the broader community. Contact with Johnny however ‘triggers’ his innate Red, he wants to beat Johnny up, his Purple, he wants to dominate Johnny, and his Blue, he wants Johnny and everyone else to follow the damn rules. He had to, so should everyone else! He also looks down at Johnny through his Orange Lens, his ‘superior’ position as a successful business man. The more time he spends with Johnny, the more the shadow aspects of his personality come out to play, and the parts of himself he has not healed on his journey come up for some TLC. (This happens to us too if we’re paying attention.) Daniel is more than happy to help Johnny out, give him hand outs and a hand up, but Johnny has to play by his rules, the My Way or the Highway attitude of Orange. Johnny can’t go from Red to Orange. We must all work our way through the stages transcending and including core attributes as we learn and grow.

Johnny’s arc is more like a rollercoaster but basically it’s the hero’s journey, the Change arc. While he’s the mentor to his young neighbour who is on a hero’s journey himself, the mentoring is going both ways, with the young acolyte and his family reminding Johnny about the need for honour and responsibility. Johnny doesn’t realise it yet but he’s tired of the Red obsession with doing what you want regardless of how it affects others. He’s seeking ultimate peace, the pursuit of Blue.

I believe great stories are made from great characters. We only care about the story because we care about the characters and what makes us care about these fictional entities are the archetypes they represent and their journeys that look so like our own. While I agree with James Patterson that the role of story is to entertain not educate, the old myths can’t help but teach us. Their power comes from their universality, their scope, their monumentality but also the mirror they hold up to our own lives. When I was a kid all the young boys wanted to be Luke Skywalker and the girls wanted to be Princess Leia. We all wanted to go on an adventure and save the universe. Characters we love can inspire us to be more, to be better. In those we despise or fear, we can recognise our own shadows in the portrayal on screen or page. Like it or not our myths mostly come to us courtesy of Netflix these days and the more savvy and open we are when watching them the more likely the myth will speak to our deeper understanding.

The characters in Cobra Kai are deceptively complex. Or am I reading too much into it? Perhaps it’s just a goofy story that tries a little too hard to educate teens about the dangers of bullying, drugs and alcohol, and other poor decisions like so many other American television shows. I’m half way through Season 3 so I’ll know for sure in a few episodes but I hope Johnny is truly on a growth arc. He could really use a break!

My current Work in Progress ‘Mimi Gets away with Murder’ has a villain for the protagonist, Mimi and her sister Nicole who is the ‘good guy’ antagonist. In my first draft, Mimi is fairly one dimensional and quite nasty. I’ve been researching character arcs to create these complex women because I want Mimi to be more than a Psychopath Barbie. Nicole will undergo a Shift arc while her murderous sister will Fall, even though she won’t realise it until the very end, like Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil (Glenn Close) in Dangerous Liaisons.

From –

In the article, The 3 Types of Character Arcs – Change, Growth and Fall, Veronica Sico details a few different types of character arcs.

  1. The Change Arc: This is our hero’s journey, where the protagonist starts off the book as an unlikely hero. They are called from their normal lives to some adventure, there’s a supernatural aide or mentor, after which comes a series of trials and adventures, victory, and return. The character’s change is radical, despite often always possessing an inner strength. An example of a change arc is Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones or Daniel in the original Karate Kid movies.
  2. The Growth Arc: The protagonist overcomes an internal opposition (weakness, fear, the past etc.) while she faces an external opposition, and as a result she becomes a fuller, better person. She’s still pretty much who she was, just upgraded to Protagonist 2.0. An example of a growth arc is Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings series.
  3. The Fall Arc: (Also known as a “tragedy.”) The protagonist dooms himself and/or others, and declines into insanity, immorality, or death. An example of a fall arc is Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader in the Star Wars series and Johnny in the original Karate Kid movies.
  4. and then there’s the less common Shift Arc: The protagonist changes his perspective, learns different skills, or gains a different role. The end result is not ‘better’ or more than the starting point, just different. I’m wondering if Coriolanus Snow in the prequel to The Hunger Games series is an example of the shift arc. In Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes a shift is definitely present but in The Hunger Games series proper, I’d consider President Snow’s arc to be a Fall. I wonder if the shift could be considered a Flat arc? KM Weiland on her awesome blog says, “The flat-arc protagonist will be confronted with tremendous opposition. He will at times be shaken. His commitment to the Truth will be tested to the breaking point—but he will never waiver from it. He will experience little inner conflict and will not change significantly as a person—although he may sometimes change externally.” Daniel in Cobra Kai is on a flat arc to some extent although I don’t think it’s that simple any more. His character will experience some growth. I think readers and viewers expect their characters to have more depth these days. Readers demand fully-fleshed out characters including the villain!