(Full disclosure, I haven’t seen Season 2 yet. Waiting to get over my Game of Thrones hangover before diving in.)
Borrowing from Michael Byers’s Faking Shapely Fiction, a three-dimensional character needs to possess three characteristics: unaligned traits, spectrum traits, and self-reflection. Unaligned traits are those which can go together, but we don’t expect them to. Spectrum traits are those which a character possesses, but which are not always expressed. Self-reflection is self-reflection. With Cobra Kai’s rendition of Johnny Lawrence, we get all three in spades, plus a special kicker on top.
When a character feels like a stock cliche, it’s often because they have only aligned traits, which is to say all of their traits are things we expect to get as a bundle. It’s the star athlete who is terrible at academics, has a pretty but shallow girlfriend, goes to parties with underage drinking, drives a sports car, and has an overbearing or abusive father and absentee mother. If this is the main antagonist, make his girlfriend too-good-for-him instead. (This is actually pretty much the Johnny Lawrence from The Karate Kid, where outside of Danny and Miyagi, the characters are rather flat.)
Unaligned traits are the ones which can go together, but don’t necessarily have to. We expect the guy in a demeaning blue collar job to drink cheap beer and listen to classic rock; we don’t expect him to be a highly disciplined (martial) artist. We expect that same blue collar dive bar trash type to be politically incorrect, but we don’t expect him to also be incredibly empathetic. It’s not that people like that can’t be this way, but rather that the traits simply aren’t correlated. They’re not aligned. And, this is the Johnny Lawrence we meet in Cobra Kai.
No one is ever exactly the same from one day to the next. We all have different traits, and they express themselves more or less depending on the situation. A character might be careful most of the time, indulgent rarely, generous with his friends, and funny when feeling confident.
In the opening on Cobra Kai, Johnny is dismissive of Miguel. He just wants to be left alone. But, he later helps Miguel. His default mode is just to get through the day with as little hassle as possible. But, he has a hard time standing by when he knows he can help. He expresses a tremendous amount of self-confidence, but we see this quickly fade at the prospect of running into Daniel at his auto dealership. In his dojo, he’s the boss …but he accepts when he’s out of his element.
These aren’t contradictions, and at no point do we think Johnny is suddenly acting out of character. Instead, we see in Johnny a reflection of the truth that no one is one thing all the time.
While it would be realistic to populate stories with many characters who lack self-reflection and introspection, we’d be left with far less interesting characters. We want characters who seem to have thoughts going on in their heads that go beyond the words they say on screen. This is why we love Walter White on Breaking Bad so much, and it probably explains a lot of the criticism about Emilia Clarke’s acting on Game of Thrones (though maybe the criticism is better directed at the writing). Self-reflection is one of the easiest ways to populate a character’s head with thoughts and bring them to life.
It also fuels character growth. Rather than just being molded by external factors, self-reflection allows characters to experience much more rich and nuanced growth. Stories are inherently about change, and the more opportunities for character’s to grow, the better.
Finally, self-reflection is aspirational. We’re often drawn to characters who are better than ourselves in someway. We like characters who are funnier than us, or more clever, more dedicated, or who have superpowers we’d love to possess. We tend to be far less self-reflective than we wish we were. We spend too much time on auto-pilot, learn too infrequently from our own mistakes, and are oblivious to our character flaws. Similarly, we often struggle to improve ourselves based on what little we do know about our natures. Self-reflective characters come to life for us because they’re what we aspire to be at a level deeper than just being funny or witty or good looking or able to fly or turn invisible.
Johnny’s Most Unique Trait
Beyond the basic formula for creating a three-dimensional character, Johnny Lawrence possesses something truly special, his pride. There is something uniquely complex and nuanced at work here.
When we first meet Johnny in Cobra Kai, he’s doing degrading handy man work, pulling rats out of gutters and all that. We also see that he’s good at his job. When hanging the TV, he seems to know exactly what he’s doing, and he even makes sure to wipe his finger prints off the screen when he’s done. It’s not glamorous work, but he takes pride in doing the job well. When told to move the TV because it’s on the wrong wall, he doesn’t complain that it’s going to take him a lot of time. He says it’ll take time to fill the holes, match the paint… he says it’ll take time to do the job the right way.
Now bear with me for a bit of a diversion into a different sort of pride, the sort we expect to see in a one-dimensional blue collar character. This is the type of pickup truck Bubba wanna-be (and sometimes actually is) tough guy pride. The type of pride that gets offended when someone else talks to his girl without even knowing he exists. The type of pride that starts fights over who has the pool table next. The type of pride that says “the fuck you say to me?”
This is not Johnny’s pride. When Johnny says to Wrong-Wall TV Kylie, “Just quit bitching at me,” he’s not saying “You can’t treat me like that,” he’s saying “You shouldn’t treat anyone like that.”
Likewise, when Johnny calls Aisha’s bullies cowards, it’s not because they’re bullying his new student, but because he thinks no one should have to deal with anonymous insults. Of course Johnny isn’t some white knight paladin looking to purge the land of all wrong doers. He sits by while Miguel gets Pepto poured over his head, but we can see it on his face: while Johnny isn’t beyond resolving disputes physically, he doesn’t think it’s fair for anyone to face a 4 on 1 fight. Pushing Miguel onto his car isn’t really what motivates him there, it’s just the catalyst that pushes him to do what he already felt he should.
The pride Johnny takes in himself is fascinating because he extends it to others. He doesn’t think his ability to beat up people earns him more respect than others; he thinks everyone deserves the same respect.
This is a complex trait, and one we rarely see portrayed in real life, popular media, or anywhere else. Beyond that, for Johnny it is a spectrum trait, something he doesn’t always express (he certainly doesn’t feel this way towards Daniel, at least not initially), and it’s something we aspire to. Far from the flat antagonist of Karate Kid, Cobra Kai’s Johnny Lawrence is perhaps one of the most well rendered characters in contemporary media.
If you enjoyed this and want more, check out my blog The Quill and Tankard; it’s mostly articles on Game of Thrones, but I’m going to continue writing about Cobra Kai there as well, especially as I get into Season 2.