One of the great problems that writers have when writing sequels is that, if there was any character development in a story at all, its sequel begins with different characters, and therefore different character dynamics. If you tell a coming-of-age story, in the sequel you’ve got someone who already came of age, and now you have to tell a different sort of story. If you tell an analog to it, such as a main character learning to use his magical powers or his family’s magic sword or his pet dragon growing up or what-have-you, you’ve then got to start the next story with the main character being powerful, not weak.
One all-too-common solution to this problem is to reset the characters. The main character can lose his magic powers, or his pet dragon flies off, or his magic sword is stolen. This can be done somewhat successfully, in the sense of the change not being completely unrealistic, depending on the specifics, but I argue that in general, it should not be.
Before I get to that, I just want to elaborate on the depending-on-the-specifics part. It is fairly viable for a new king with a magic sword to lose the sword and have to go on a quest to get it back, though it’s better if he has to entrust it to a knight who will rule in his absence while he goes off to help some other kingdom. Probably the most workable version of this is the isekai story—a type of story, common in Japanese manga, light novels, and animation, where the main character is magically abducted to another world and needs to help there. Being abducted to another world works pretty well.
By contrast, it does not work to do any kind of reset in a coming-of-age story. It’s technically viable to have the character fall and hit his head and forget everything he learned, but that’s just stupid. Short of that, people don’t come of age then just become people who no experience who’ve never learned any life lessons again.
So why should resets be avoided even when they work? There are two main reasons:
- It’s throwing out all of the achievements of the first story.
- It’s lazy writing.
The first is the most important reason. We hung in with a character through his trials and travails to see him learn and grow and achieve. If the author wipes this away, it takes away the fact that any of it happened. And there’s something worse: it’s Lucy pulling the football away.
If the author is willing to say, “just kidding” about character development the first time, why should we trust that the second round of character development was real this time? Granted, some people are gullible—there will be people who watch the sequel to The Least Jedi. I’m not saying that it’s not commercially viable. Only that it makes for bad writing.
Which brings me to point #2: it’s lazy writing to just undo the events of the original in order to just re-write it a second time. If one takes the lazy way out in the big picture, it sets one up to take the lazy way out in the details, too. Worse, since the second will be an echo of the first, everything about it will either be the first warmed over or merely a reversal of what happened the first time. Except that these reversals will have to work out to the same thing, since the whole reason for resetting everything is to be able to write the same story. Since it will not be its own story, it will take nearly a miracle to make the second story true to itself given that there will be some changes.
A very good example of not taking the lazy way out is the movie Terminator 2. Given that it’s a movie about a robot from the future which came back in time to stop another robot from the future from killing somebody, it’s a vastly better movie than it has any right to be. Anyway, there’s a very interesting bit in the director’s commentary about this. James Cameron pointed out that in most sequels, Sarah Connor would have gone back to being a waitress, just like she was in the first movie.
But in Terminator 2, she didn’t. James Cameron and the other writer asked themselves what a reasonable person would do if a soldier from the future came back and saved her from a killer robot from the future, and impregnated her with the future leader of the rebellion against the robots? And the answer was that she would make ties with gun runners, become a survivalist, and probably seem crazy.
We meet her doing pullups on her upturned bed in a psychiatric ward.
Terminator 2, despite having the same premise, is a very different movie from Terminator because Terminator 2 takes Terminator seriously. There are, granted, some problems because it is a time travel story and time travel stories intrinsically have plot holes. (Time travel is, fundamentally, self-contradictory.) That said, Terminator and Terminator 2 could easily be rewritten to be about killer robots from the Robot Planet where the robots have a prophecy of a human who will attack them. That aside, Terminator 2 is a remarkably consistent movie, both with itself and as a sequel.
Another good example, which perhaps illustrates the point even better, is Cars 2. The plot of Cars, if you haven’t seen it, is that a famous race car (Lightning McQueen) gets sentenced to community service for traffic violations in a run-down town on his way to a big race. There he learns personal responsibility, what matters in life, and falls in love. Then he goes on to almost win the big race, but sacrifices first place in order to help another car who got injured. (If you didn’t figure it out, the cars are alive in Cars.)
The plot of Cars 2 is that McQueen is now a champion race car and takes part in an international race. At the same time, his buddy from the first movie, Mater, is mistaken for a spy and joins a James Bond-style espionage team to find out why and how an international organization of evil (I can’t recall what they’re called; it’s C.H.A.O.S. from Get Smart or S.P.E.C.T.R.E. from James Bond) is sabotaging the race. McQueen is not perfect, but he is more mature and does value the things he learned to value in the first movie. The main friction comes from him relying on Mater and Mater letting him down.
As you can see, Cars 2 did not reset Cars, nor did it try to tell Cars over again. In fact, it was so much of a sequel to Cars, which was a coming-of-age movie, that it was a completely different sort of movie. This was a risk, and many of the adults who liked Cars did not like Cars 2, because it was so different. This is the risk to making sequels that honor the first story—they cannot be the first story over again, so they will not please everyone who liked the first story.
Now, Cars 2 is an interesting example because there was no need to make it a spy thriller. Terminator 2 honored the first movie and was still an action/adventure where a killer robot has come to, well, kill. But there was a practical reason why Cars 2 was in a different genre from its predecessor but Terminator 2 was not: most everyone knows how to grow up enough to not be a spoiled child, but pretty few people in Hollywood have any idea how to keep growing up to become a mature adult from a minimally functioning adult.
If one wants to tell a true sequel to a coming-of-age film, which mostly means a film in which somebody learns to take responsibility for himself, the sequel will be about him learning to take responsibility for others. In practice, this means either becoming a parent or a mentor.
This is a sort of story that Hollywood has absolutely no skill in telling.
If you look at movies about parents or mentors, they’re almost all about how the parent/mentor has to learn to stop trying to be a parent/mentor and just let the child/mentee be whatever he wants to be.
Granted, trying to turn another human being into one’s own vision, materialized, is being a bad parent and a bad mentor, just letting them be themselves is equally bad parenting and mentoring. What you’re supposed to do as a parent or a mentor is to help the person to become themselves. That is, they need to become fully themselves. They must overcome their flaws and become the perfect human being which God made them to be. That’s a hard, difficult process for a person, which is why it takes so much skill to be a parent or a mentor.
There’s a lot of growth necessary to be a decent parent or mentor, but it’s more subtle than growing up from a child. Probably one of the biggest things is learning how much self-sacrifice is necessary—how much time the child or mentee needs, and how little time one will have for one’s own interests. How to balance those things, so one gives freely but does not become subsumed—that is a difficult thing to learn, indeed. That has the makings of very interesting character development.
The problem, of course, is that only people who have gone through it and learned those lessons are in a position to tell it—one can’t teach what one doesn’t know.
At least on purpose.
Art is a great testament to how much one can teach by accident—since God is in charge of the world, not men.
But I think that the world really could do with some (more) decent stories about recent adults learning to be mature adults. I think that they can be made interesting to general audiences.