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The Curse of Cool

Ah, Top Gun. A film so shimmering with a certain kind of macho cool that a studio can successfully bring its star back to reprise the role, even though he’s in touching distance of collecting his pension.

And – that star is good at flying. He looks cool on a motorbike and, well, just looks cool. He walks with swagger, talks with attitude. Women love him. Men have bro-crushes.

And with a character like this, you already know a lot. They won’t walk smack into a glass door when they’re leaving an office. They won’t get ketchup on that gleamingly white T-shirt. They’ll wear the right sort of watch but won’t bore you stupid telling you about it.

They might or might not have a preference between a ’55 Petrus and a ’53 Petrus, but – if they were less James Bond and more Die Hard’s John McClane – you know they’d order a cold beer from a fancy wine waiter and somehow end up looking confident and right. They’d make it look like ordering beer in a fancy restaurant was the coolest, smartest thing to do, like anything else was somehow missing a trick.

And there’s the physical prowess, of course.

This hero doesn’t merely ride a motorbike; he rides it fast and has perfect control of the machine at all times. The same with the plane. Those flying scenes might look tough, but you know that, in the end, you’d rather have the 59-year-old Cruise flying for your life than any number of beautiful 20- and 30-something hotshots.

The moral of these thoughts? Presumably that Cool Works. Cool, in this case, has already gathered $600 million at the box office. That’s good, right? You wouldn’t mind too much if your current Work In Progress gathered, oooh, even one tenth of that sum on publication.

But, oh my friends, Cool is Bad. Cool is Boring. 

It’s not in film, of course, where there’s a pleasure in seeing Cool on the big screen. It’s just damn sexy. Tom Cruise has got his smoking hot brand of sex appeal, but all those big stars – male and female – bring their A-list charisma to their parts. We just don’t ask too much by way of character or story from a Tom Cruise film. We just want him to be the fullest possible, most daydreamy version of Tom Cruise for the film’s two-hour running time.

But in books? Well, Cool is just dull.

It’s actively hard to think of a really successful hero who’s as cool as Cruise – or, really, anything like. Just to take a few names from crime thrillers:

  • Sherlock Holmes – super-smart and physically capable … but also cold, arrogant, tin-eared around emotional things, cutting to his friends, a drug-addict, often mournful. Verdict: NOT COOL
  • Hercule Poirot– You don’t even need to ask. The guy’s Belgian, for Pete’s sake. Verdict: NOT COOL
  • Miss Marple – Ditto, only not Belgian.
  • Philip Marlowe – OK, this character is smart, tough, funny, and has chemistry with women. But he also drinks too much, lives alone, is visibly lonely, and gets plenty of things wrong. He’s flawed in a way that Top Gun’s Maverick just isn’t. I don’t think we can quite give him a verdict of NOT COOL – Marlowe beats the heck out of the first three on the list. But he’s SEXY, COMPLICATED AND INTERESTING, more than cool.
  • Tom Ripley – OK, an anti-hero, but also the star of multiple classic novels and films. But he was something like sociopathic. His romantic orientation was, by the standards of his homophobic age, a wrong one. He’s definitely not someone you half fancy, or would want your son/daughter to marry. Verdict: NOT COOL.
  • Jack Reacher – an interesting one that, as he is super-tough and super-smart about the things you want your tough guy thriller hero to know. (Weapons, sniper-positions, military law, criminal tattoos, and so on.) That list feels quite Cruise-y – and sure enough the diminutive Tom Cruise has played Reacher, the man mountain. But whereas the audience, male or female, just kind of wants to marry Tom Cruise in the role of Maverick, they’d think twice before marrying Reacher. Reacher is basically a hobo. He’s not exactly emotionally blind, but he’s a million miles away from being able to sustain a complex relationship. He’s like a thriller version of idiot savant, incredibly dumb and incredibly capable, both at the same time. The overall verdict? Well, heck, if Maverick is the standard here, we just have to rate Reacher as NOT COOL.

And so on. You can throw my Fiona Griffiths onto that list too. Yes, she’s smart and, in some ways, confident, and, in some ways, skilled. But she also does say the wrong thing to waiters, she does walk straight into glass walls, she’s a useless cook, she’s mechanically inept, and so on. Very definitely you wouldn’t get her played by a female Tom Cruise type (Angelina Jolie? Charlise Theron?). And if by chance you did find Angelina or Charlise in a role like that, you’d know they were sniffing around for an Oscar.

The real point here is that cinema worships the exterior: that’s really all they can show. And yes, we can see great actors frown, or tremble, or add a shading when they speak their lines. But it’s still a basically exterior experience. Cinema therefore glorifies the exterior. It gets beautiful humans doing the sexiest possible thing in the most amazing possible locations. Obviously, there’s more complex cinema too, but complex isn’t cool. The cooler cinema gets, the simpler it gets.

And books are interior things. Readers want complexity. Sherlock Holmes would have been a lesser character if he hadn’t been annoying and brilliant in about equal measure. (Fiona Griffiths the same, of course.) Philip Marlowe would have been duller if he’d always got things right, if his life wasn’t a bit of a mess. Without the whole hobo-schtick, Jack Reacher would have been just another thriller character, entertaining and forgettable.

I see quite a few manuscripts where the Lure of the Cool has, in my view, led the author astray. The writer is, I suspect, thinking about film and considering what would make a great scene in cinema.

But forget that. You almost certainly want a character who is both glittering and frustrating, heroic and flawed, sexy and infuriating. How you exactly whip up your ingredients is up to you, but the main point here is to forget Tom Cruise and insert the complicated character actor of your choice instead. Find things for your hero to be bad at, find ways for them to fail, find ways for them to annoy the reader.

It reads better and, as always, it’s more fun to write as well.

That’s it from me. I once flew with a stuntman in a microlight aircraft and almost left my lunch all over the plane. Tom Cruise, I am not.

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Comments (5)
    • image_transcoder.php?o=bx_froala_image&h=717&dpx=2&t=1654871015

      There's an assumption here that cool is flawless, which would exclude characters brought to life by both Marlon Brando and James Dean. In Rebel Without a Cause, Dean's Jim Stark is an effortlessly cool juvenile delinquent who, like Tom Ripley, you wouldn't want your daughter or son to marry. In On The Waterfront, Brando plays Terry Malloy, who is undoubtedly cool and undoubtedly tragic.

      In terms of literature, there's Jack Kerouac's On The Road. Here a bunch of flawed guys wander around aimlessly just being cool.

      But given the age of these examples, perhaps the time of cool has passed.

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          • Prefer interior to exterior any day!

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            • AAAAyyy!  I think I prefer cool that sometimes has a bit of a failure.  Fonzie was every ounce cool; unless he wasn't.  Sometimes, just for a moment there was that slip that let us see he was almost human.  In my favorite scene The Fonz has a headache and swallows several aspirin, dry.  "Wow Fonz don't ya want water with those?" someone asks.  "No!" says the coughing and gaging Fonzie, "Only a NERD takes aspirin with water!"  As the coughing and gaging increases Fonzie takes the tin of aspirin from his pocket than tosses it across the room declaring, "Must be defective aspirin."

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