In my last post I talked about why sequels can suck. When a character moves through their arch, they start from who they are, having a trait such as not believing in oneself. The plot will continually challenge that notion until the character realizes what it means to truly have faith in themself. And if the writer is good, then the story will test the staying power of that new trait.
Therein lies the problem for sequels that I discussed in my last post: The character has become the person they should be. So how does a writer continue that character's story in a sequel, while still having an arch to traverse?
One of my favorite movies from my childhood is The Karate Kid. On the surface, Daniel, the main character, seems to be confident in himself. Right after moving across the country with his mother, he makes a new friend who invites him to a beach party. There he sees a girl that he likes and doesn't have a problem charming her. Her ex-boyfriend, Johnny, spots them, and he tries to force a conversation with her. Daniel stands up to Johnny and receives a beating for his efforts.
As a character, Daniel has attitude, confidence, and is unenlightened. How can someone have confidence and lack enlightenment? That's what so intriguing about Daniel.
Confidence is the trust in one's own ability. The plot shows us this. Robert Mark Kamen, the original screenwriter, knew what he was doing. Daniel's ability to make a new friend, to charm a girl and stand up for himself are signs of confidence. Confidence, however, doesn't guarantee success. So when Daniel fails by losing that new friend, the fight, and the ability to show his vulnerability to the girl, doubt seeps inside and eats at him. So what does he do? He tries to learn Karate from a book and checks out a Karate school called the Cobra Kai. He's trying to shore up his doubt by out-Karateing Johnny.
Mistah Miyagi is Spiderman.
Mr. Miyagi has made a deal with the Cobra Kai that Daniel and Johnny will settle their differences at the All Valley Karate Tournament. Months of training fly by as Miyagi instructs Daniel. Daniel confesses that he doesn't feel like he's learned enough Karate. With a knowing smile, Miyagi says to trust in the quality of the training, not the quantity. This is important because the solution to Daniel's problems isn't to know more Karate. Nor is it to be stronger. Nor be faster.
Miyagi has always taught from a place of truth. That one must be fully committed to the task. Hard work done well is important. Balance in life is essential. Miyagi is an enlightened individual. He's detached from silly things like winning and losing. His only concern is that Daniel knows himself. That his truth lies within.
Sweep the leg.
Daniel does well in the tournament and makes it to the finals. This is where the plot tests how well he's learned his lessons. The Cobra Kai sensei instructs Johnny to cheat, so he sweeps the leg, forcing Daniel to forfeit the bout due to injury. Will he be satisfied with the current outcome? Or will he choose to fight injured?
This is a movie goddammit! So he chooses to fight injured.
Miyagi looks at his wounded student. "No need fight anymore. You prove point."
"What, that I can take a beating?" Daniel says. "Every time I see those guys, they'll know they got the best of me. I'll never have balance that way, not with them, not with Ali...not with me."
Not with me. And here we find out that Daniel is enlightened.
Now. How does a writer create a character arch who is enlightened?
Thirty-four years later, Cobra Kai.
I was concerned that the YouTube Red series, Cobra Kai, was gonna suck ass. So much of the promotional commercials show Johnny as the sympathetic/protagonist and Daniel as a douche. That would be like doing something ghastly, taking a totally optimistic character and making him completely pessimistic—ahem—Luke Skywalker—cough. Thank baby Jesus that didn't happen—sneeze—sarcasm.
The writers for Cobra Kai continued the mythology of Daniel and Johnny. Their core character traits are still intact.
Daniel has become a car salesman. He owns a chain of car dealerships. The writers showed that that level of comfort has softened Daniel. His focus is on the good life: riches, providing for his family. What he didn't have himself: A loving father and material wealth.
Johnny's still an asshole, but from what I gather, he hasn't had a lot of opportunities throughout the past 34 years to grow into the person he should be. He started on that path when he congratulated Daniel for beating him in the '84 All Valley Tournament. The life of wealth that Johnny had came with severe costs—a stepfather who hated him.
What I love about these two characters is the gray area they venture in and out of. Both of them make good and bad choices. So my mind is always trying to categorize who the good and bad guy is. This is mirrored in the young cast of characters. The writing plays with my sense of expectations. Sometimes the story fulfills it. Other times it switches things around.
The biggest point is that Daniel and Johnny felt real because their core character traits have remained true. The nostalgia, the incredible storytelling and good acting made this series a joy to watch. Often times I forgot that I was a writer and was pulled into the story. That's a good sign. Because when I'm critiquing a story that I'm reading or watching for entertainment, it means the writing hasn't done the job of pulling me in.