Last month, I went to Europe. Since our group was large, we stayed in large hotels, which— correctly guessing the average metabolism of a group of a hundred teenagers— kindly supplied each room with a snack, a granola bar. More specifically, a Corny bar.
Never have I seen such an apt description. The bar was a standard chocolate granola bar in every way. The wrapper showed the name in big, curly letters, over a picture of the granola bar itself, which in turn partially covered a couple heads of grain and a chunk of chocolate. Corny? Why, yes, and not just because it included corn.
Occasionally, as a writer, I look at something I wrote and find that it is completely, utterly, corny. The main character is a Chosen One orphan who lives as a farmer/blacksmith in the backwoods of a medieval country with grotesque and snarling beasts that ravage things (who doesn’t believe in magic but sort of believes in the legend of the Dark Lord from whom all ravaging beasts were born); and the plot is just the Hero’s Journey expanded to fit a sassy but lovable rogue (also an orphan) picked up in the first city the hero comes to. This, my friends, is nothing new— and yet, occasionally I find myself writing something like that.
This used to be my greatest pet peeve in reading and writing: originality. With the world so stuffed full of fiction already, can there actually be anything original? My goal as a young writer was to find that thing. But it’s difficult to break out of conventional genre and define something new all by yourself. It’s difficult to be completely original. In fact, almost no one is original— they just know how to work with corniness.
Allow me to present Exhibit A: Captain America. He is one of the corniest superheroes imaginable. Look at his name: it’s not the highest rank he could be (what about General America, or Commander America?), and bearing the name of the country he fights for? It’s almost as if to say he embodies the country. Hey, wait… That he does, in an idealized sense. Patriotism, justice, the American dream, all wrapped up in one muscled guy wearing Spandex. Thank you, Marvel— everyone should know how much we value ourselves. Undeniably, Captain America is corny.
However, he’s definitely high on my list of favorite Marvel superheroes. Why is this, when corny things are so odious to me? Since I was specifically introduced to the character through the recent movies about him, what did those writers do correctly? They began at a disadvantage, trying to make Captain America seem engaging and original when he had a clinging aura of corniness. How did they do it?
Most importantly, they acknowledged it. Ignoring corniness is possibly the worst thing you can do. Some people think cliches will disappear if they ignore them long enough, but that won’t happen. Because corniness is so apparent to the audience, for you to ignore it makes you seem ignorant of what you’re actually writing. That is not the position you want. You are in control, or the reader won’t trust you with their attention. So, first step of solving corniness: acknowledge it.
How? In Captain America: The First Avenger, they made it part of the plot. Steve Rodgers was a scrawny kid who wanted nothing more than to join the army. When he finally gets the chance to become a real soldier, muscles and all, he’s stuck in advertising. What do they name him? Captain America— an experiment that probably will never be field-tested. Why does that work? Because advertising is one of the only things on earth cornier than Captain America himself. Advertising is the perfect example of someone trying to ignore their corniness and still make it work, in fact. They’re the only people who would ever think Captain America is a good idea.
Thus, when Steve Rodgers begins to step into the superhero role of Captain America, he suddenly takes the idea and makes it awesome. We didn’t fall in love with Captain America in this movie— we fell in love with the guy behind it, who was stuffed into the corniest name available. When he comes out on top, holding up the silly name like a rallying standard, it works. For this movie, at least, the corniness is conquered, and he can get back to being awesome.
But the example doesn’t stop there. (I didn’t realize beginning the post how perfect an example this would be. Cap is a wealth of corniness.) In every movie that features Captain America as a character, this problem must be conquered anew. Again and again, it’s handled perfectly. Take the Avengers, for instance. With hugely non-corny heroes like the Hulk or Iron Man or Thor (although Thor is on the corny side), why is Cap even present? He can’t fly, he can’t punch flying whales out of the sky, he can’t even lift Thor’s hammer. Like a good writer, Joss Whedon acknowledges this almost instantly. The other characters ask exactly this question. Steve Rodgers himself never feels like he fits in with the group, especially since this isn’t his time period. Instead of using the plot to acknowledge corniness, The Avengers uses the characters.
How do they fix it eventually? Even after acknowledging it, they can’t just ignore it to save the day. No, instead we have this resolution, offered in convenient dialogue form by extreme fan Phil Coulson:
With everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old-fashioned.
Indeed, Coulson is the one person in the entire movie who sees past Cap’s corniness, and he’s the one to resolve that exact question. Let’s take a moment to admire the amazing power of Coulson’s character in this single movie.
Okay, that done, let’s get back to Captain America. I won’t go too much into the mechanics of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (since it’s still pretty new), but they combine the ideas of both movies, pulling the solution to corniness from both the plot and the character. As in The First Avenger, people are using Captain America for his name, but this time they’re using him as a weapon, not just as an advertising gimmick. Once again, Steve Rodgers has to pull away from his persona and get back to doing what he feels is right. It’s a more difficult fix to get right than the first two, but the payoff is much, much greater.
Every so often, you’ll be confronted with something inexplicably corny, whether in your own writing or in someone else’s. How to fix it? Acknowledge it within the story and fix it there first. Use plot, use character, use whatever tools you have to make sure it’s fixed. Corniness is not an acceptable solution to lack of originality— but fixing corniness through good writing definitely works. Don’t be a Corny bar.