This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!
Many writers falter when trying to write characters of whose genders are different from their own. Even Margaret Atwood, a writer who I deeply admire, has this problem at times. In her book The Robber Bride, the primary characters, three women, are all rich, complex characters. Their male partners, by contrast, are a bunch of shallow, selfish morons who easily fall for the charms of the book’s female villain. Male writers frequently struggle with the same problem, writing women who blather about shoes and makeup, making clichéd remarks like “men are idiots.” These are not characters. These are bland collections of traits which we associate with one gender or another. Granted, these characters don’t offend many people, as stereotypical depictions are so familiar as to be invisible, but neither will anyone see these as memorable characters. We know the stereotypical traits of gender; we’ve been learning them since before we we knew how to talk. If you want to make a nuanced character, we need to know more than what gender they are.
The character of Indiana Jones has become ingrained in our culture to the point of becoming an archetype in and of himself. His very name has become a part of our lexicon, representing far-flung and wild adventure of the highest degree. He is a cultural touchstone; a symbol so familiar that even those who have not seen his movies have at least a vague idea of what he represents.
With all that he’s come to mean, it seems incongruous to realize how small his repertoire actually is: while there are innumerable tie-ins, there are only four actual films in the Indy canon. With Harrison Ford aging and the intellectual property rights tightly in the clutches of Spielberg and Lucas, it seems unlikely that there will be any more. Given the dismal quality of the most recent installment, that is arguably a good thing. Perhaps it is for the best if the franchise is allowed to quietly die rather than to allow George Lucas to continue blundering along and ruining things.
Or perhaps it is time to turn the character over to someone who might know what to do with him. Here’s the thing: Spielberg and Lucas have created a character who’s bigger than they are. While both are seminal directors who’ve created many influential franchises, Indy has uniquely captured our society’s imagination in a way that few fictional characters ever do. Others enjoying this degree of recognition include Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, both of whom have been featured in many works of art produced by many different people. In terms of their potential for reinterpretation, these characters are so unfettered they make Indy look downright quaint.
Sherlock Holmes has been around for a relatively long time, and as such he has passed out of copyright. No one owns the character, and thus he has taken on a life of complete freedom. Anyone can write a new Holmes story. Anyone with the resources to do so can create a Holmes movie. The Guinness Book of World Records lists him as “the most portrayed movie character,” having appeared in over 211 films and played by 75 different actors. Holmes, like Indy, is part of our collective consciousness, but more importantly, the character himself belongs to anyone who wants him. He is free.
James Bond, by comparison, seems like small beans, having been portrayed by six actors in 23 films, but his case is still worth examination. While Bond is still under copyright (meaning his usage is still controlled by various interested parties), his canon of movies is vast and varied. It is, in fact, so inconsistent that fans are obliged to come up with original theories to improve its coherence. As the franchise has been open to new influences, Bond, while not technically free, is free enough to allow extensive reinterpretation. And, yes, some of the Bond films are considered inferior to others and dismissed even by some of his fans. Any large series is going to have a few stinkers.
Which brings me back to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Indy’s newest movie. We won’t try to sugarcoat this: it’s terrible. There was some classic Indy action, yes, but also all kinds of Erich von Daniken silliness, bad CGI, annoying characters, bombproof refrigerators, and that scene with the monkeys. With only four Indy movies, it stands out as a weak link in an otherwise strong series. Some people would also nominate Temple of Doom for this position. That makes an overall success rate of only 50%–not very impressive.
Now here’s the thought experiment: what if, instead of restricting Indy to being played by one actor and managed by the same two jokers, he was opened to a wider audience of creators? Imagine if, instead of four movies, there were many, all produced by different people, with little or no oversight from the original creators. Some would be as bad as Kingdom. Some would even be worse than Kingdom, no sense in denying that. Some, however, would be fresh and enjoyable additions to the body of work. And some, dare I say it, might be so novel and daring that they would overshadow the originals.
We will call this “the democratization of Indiana Jones.” (People take ideas more seriously if they have pretentious names.) Indy is so ubiquitous that it seems only fitting that the opportunity to write his stories should be extended to others. At the very least he should be partially freed like James Bond. Ideally he would be completely freed like Sherlock Holmes. Indiana Jones is alive in our hearts, corny as that sounds, and it’s high time that he was liberated from his dusty tomb. He does not belong in a museum.
Disclaimer: I have not seen Temple of Doom, nor any Bond movies, so opinions on those topics are based on original research. Post any and all complaints to the comments section and I will do my best to address them.
In the tradition of Randall Munroe’s “Died in a blogging accident” I’ve embarked on a brief Googling experiment to document the snowclone “The Indiana Jones of ______.” You’ve seen it before, no doubt. Journalists adore labeling people the Indiana Joneses of their disciplines, I suppose because it makes things sound more exciting than they actually are. The experiment turned up more than I expected, though: 1,300,000 search results (0.12 seconds). Admittedly there is some repetition (and even a few references to Indy himself) but still, there are a lot of Joneses to keep up with. First result: Chris McKay, the “Indiana Jones of NASA.” Second: Mark Moffett, the “Indiana Jones of Ants.” (Moffett also comes well-recommended by Margaret Atwood, which certainly perks up my interest. Maybe I will check out his book. ) Third: Ron Wyatt, the Indiana Jones of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. (And one of the few people on the list who’s actually an archaeologist of sorts.) Exactly how Google ordered this particular hierarchy would be interesting to know in and of itself.
What else is there? You name it. There are, apparently, Indiana Joneses of knitting, photography, alternative energy, finance, rabbis, botany, the internet, fishing, and paper. Exactly what makes one the Indiana Jones of knitting I’m not sure, but there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. (Unfortunately I found no Indiana Joneses of quilting or cartooning. It’s time someone picked up the slack there.)
And if you ever wondered, the Indiana Jones of Shakespeare is Pericles.