Like most sentient creatures, I’m a fan of the John Wick movies. The magnetic anti-hero and the simple revenge plot have sustained my interest for three movies and counting. Somehow, the series has avoided the same mediocrity and self-parody that has plagued so many other franchises that have reached a third installment. I’m looking at you Superman III, Spider-Man 3, Jaws 3-[fucking]-D, and Batman Forever (which should have been the title of the fourth one—think about it).
Miraculously, John Wick: Chapter 3 succeeds where those films failed.
After watching the film, my friends and I got some drinks at a nearby bar. There, I found myself repeating a single word from the movie: “Consequences.” Wick utters this word whenever one of the characters points out that his past may have finally caught up with him. Since I like to drive jokes into the ground, I began to say “Consequences” in response to everything that night, in a poor imitation of Wick’s scratchy voice. Why did we need to buy another round?
“Consequences.” Why should someone else pick up the tab? “Consequences.” And maybe I should call out sick tomorrow? “Consequences.”
“Okay, stop,” my friends eventually said. “It’s annoying.”
I recently completed the third installment in my own series. It’s titled Malefactor, and it concludes the War With No Name, which tells the story of a global war between humans and sentient animals. One of the main characters is a lot like Wick: a trained killer who is trying (and often failing) to live a normal life. He also happens to be a talking cat. Anyway, while writing that third novel, I came to appreciate Wick’s oft-repeated mantra.
There is a simple lesson here: If you want to breathe new life into your story, you must explore the consequences of your hero’s actions. Make them dire and complicated. Force the character to second guess their decisions. Challenge the reader to reinterpret what they took for granted in the previous installments.
And sure, the mistakes your character makes should come back to haunt them. But what about the good things they did? The things that, on first glance, made them heroic? Like winning a war, or rescuing a love interest, or defeating a villain who was the epitome of evil?
The negative consequences of those actions can be even more revealing. They add texture to the world. They can expose blind spots for your character. And, ultimately, provide an opportunity for growth.
Take, for example, two Star Trek movies. I’m thinking of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and Star Trek: Insurrection. In both films, the crew of the Enterprise disobeys orders and essentially commits an act of treason. The Search for Spock is generally considered a solid entry in the series, though not great; to be fair, it had big shoes to fill after the success of Wrath of Khan. Insurrection, on the other hand, is almost universally panned, in part because it regurgitates the plot of a terrible episodeof The Next Generation. However you rank these movies, let’s just agree that Search for Spock is the better of the two. And I think I know why. What truly separates these two films is (say it with me): “Consequences.”
In The Search for Spock, Captain Kirk sacrifices everything to save his friend. After rescuing Spock and returning him to his home planet, the seemingly invincible Kirk has been completely humbled. His son is dead. His ship has been destroyed. He’s on the run from the law. When Spock’s father Sarek points out all that Kirk has lost, Kirk responds, “If I hadn’t tried, the cost would have been my soul.” The subsequent movie deals with the fallout of these events. In The Voyage Home, the Enterprise crew now operates a commandeered Klingon vessel; Spock is still slowly recovering from his resurrection; and Kirk sees an opportunity to save Earth, and maybe get their old jobs back (if they don’t end up in prison).
Given the success of these earlier films, I had high expectations for Insurrection. The very title promised some major consequences. After watching the trailer, I wondered, is Captain Jean-Luc Picard, of all people, going to fire on a Federation ship? Is he going to sacrifice someone to save the rest of the crew? Is he going to question the colonialism and paternalism of the Federation?
The answers turned out to be no, no, and no, respectively. In this simplistic plot, the bad guys are bad, so Picard fights back and blows them up. Yes, there is an overly dramatic scene in which Picard removes his captain’s insignia, thereby turning his back on everything he believes. But after the villain gets vaporized in a big explosion, Picard and his crew set a course for Earth as if nothing has happened. No one seems worried about being court-martialed for disobeying direct orders from Starfleet Command. Even stranger, Picard tells his new love interest—a woman who supposedly showed him how to live a fuller life—that he’ll visit her soon.
Spoiler: he doesn’t, and she’s never mentioned again. Everything wraps up like a routine episode of the show.
When you’re slogging through the years-long process of writing a sequel, the temptation to simply do things bigger and more badass, while telling yourself that your characters have undergone some transformation as a result, is so great. To avoid that, I tried to stay focused on the main characters, and the consequences of their decisions from the previous books. First, there’s Mort(e), a housecat turned warrior, who is traumatized by the conflict with the humans. Then there’s D’Arc, Mort(e)’s canine companion, who is as eager to explore the world as Mort(e) is to retreat from it. In book two, she does just that, leaving Mort(e) to wonder what he could have done to convince her to stay.
By the time they are reunited in Malefactor, so much has changed. Mort(e)’s sacrifices have doomed him, while D’Arc’s decision to run off on her own has completely backfired. So, while Mort(e) is trying to appreciate life while he still has it, D’Arc finds herself adopting Mort(e)’s psychological armor as a way of protecting herself from the horrors of the world that he tried to warn her about. The consequences run so deep enough that the characters find themselves becoming something they didn’t want to be. “I was trying to avoid becoming like you,” D’Arc tells Mort(e) after they find each other. “How did that work out?” he asks bitterly.
I guess it remains to be seen how successful I was. But I’ll trust John Wick on this one. If you’ve gotten really deep into a series—either reading it or writing it—I encourage you to ask the hard questions. What are the consequences? Can any set of actions be purely good or purely bad? And how should the consequences force the characters to grow, adapt, and change? The best series will grapple with these questions, embracing the messiness and madness of the human experience.
This article originally appeared in File 770