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Monday, August 20, 2012

What Transformers: The Movie Taught Me About Writing

 In 1986 Hasbro released Transformers: The Movie. For them it was supposed to be a place where they could retire old characters and introduce customers to new characters. Their Brilliant plan back then was to make the new characters more appealing was to show all the old beloved characters being killed off in a violent and gory fashion.

It was a DISASTER.

The movie bombed so badly it only made $5 million at the box-office.

Many kids who did pay to see the movie left the theater upset. Many were crying about the death of Optimus Prime, Ironhide, Ratchet, Prowl, and Starscream.

Older kids like myself were just apathetic. That movie gave us the incentive to grow up and move on to stuff like girls, sex and clothes.

The damage to the Transformers brand in America was so extensive that it didn’t recover for nine years. Needless to say No one cared about Rodimus Prime, Kup, Wheelie, Arcee Galvatron, Headmasters, Targetmasters, Powermasters, Action Masters or any of that crap because it shelfwarmed like no tomorrow back in the late 1980s here in the South Bronx. I still remember seeing G1 Powermaster Optimus Prime for $14.99 at Woolworth’s and Trypticon and SkyLynx at a Korean store for $20. I remember seeing action masters at Forbidden Planet for just $1. 

And these were toys that went for $50+ a retail.

Thanks to the damage the movie did the Transformers Brand fell off for close to a decade. It didn’t start rebuilding momentum until 1996 when Hasbro released the Beast Wars line with new characters and a new storyline.

The valuable lesson I learned back in 1986 after watching Transformers: The Movie is that killing off old favorites may seem shocking in the short term, but in the long-term all it does is alienate people.

What Hasbro didn’t understand back then is that viewers built a relationship with those characters over the course of two years. That they saw these characters as friends. And some identified with them and their personality traits.

To them, watching friends they had grown close to killed off so indifferently in just a few minutes time was emotionally devastating. In some ways it was like watching a loved one die right before their eyes.

Sure, it was the horrors of war, but a small child watching their friends die horrible deaths onscreen is pretty traumatizing.

And after watching a friend die on the silver screen, it’s hard to get excited about buying a bunch of new toys or watching a new cartoon based on them.

That’s why all those new and improved Transformers like Rodimus Prime did so poorly at retail.

Needless to say at the young age of thirteen I learned it wasn't smart to not kill off popular characters in such a brutal and violent fashion. 

Moreover, I learned it wasn't smart to try to push new characters on a traumatized audience. Because they're grieving the loss of their friends All they're going to do is instantly reject the new characters and the new concept.  

At 38 I’ve learned to value the relationships my audience of readers have shared with the characters I’ve created.

I still regret killing off E’steem at the end of Isis all the way in 2002. But I quickly realized the error of my actions and brought her back in The Temptation of John Haynes once I saw her potential as a character.

As I’ve grown in my craft, I’ve learned that the readers’ relationship with the characters is important. And I can’t be indifferent to the personal connection readers have formed with their characters over the course of a story or a series of stories. When the reader forms enough of an emotional connection to care about a character or a story, they tell other people about that story. They tell them where to buy the books.

That word-of-mouth can make or break a writers’ career.

It may be the writers’ right to kill off their characters, but it’s the readers’ right to stop spending their money buying that authors’ books. While it may be shocking to kill, cripple, or mutilate a popular character at first to spark slow sales and generate general interest, it’s going to cost a writer readers long-term.

If readers feel betrayed by the death of a popular character, they stop buying that writers’ books. That anger can easily cost a writer sales of a new book, especially if it’s part of a series.

Now the writer can introduce a new version of a character or a even bring the old character back in another book to remedy the situation with alienated readers, but the damage is done. Even after the "return" of  Optimus Prime, the Transformers franchise faltered in the United States for nine years. 

It’s hard to rebuild a relationship with a reader once it’s strained. Once a reader has that experience which sours them on a story or a series of stories, there’s a high chance that they walk away from a writer and their work permanently.

Moreover, they tell their friends to walk away from that writer’s work. Once a customer is lost it’s hard to get them back.

It took nine years to rebuild the Transformers brand in the United States and make it commercially viable again after the disaster of Transformers: The Movie.

Some writers never get that second chance after their first bad story.

As a writer I’ve come to understand that the readers’ time is precious. That every second they spend reading one of my stories is time they could spend doing something else. And I need to value their time by giving them the best reading experience possible.

And shocking the reader isn’t very entertaining. In fact it gets tedious when it’s overdone like in the case of the gratuitous violence in Transformers: The Movie.

Killing any character should only be used if it works towards the organic progression of the storyline. When a writer uses death as a plot device to get out of a jam it cheats it doesn’t make for compelling reading.


  1. This is a very interesting blog, Shawn, and I suspect you give far more useful information than you intended to. Frankly, I would like to see every writer read this, for depth of perception about what readers want, and as a writing tool to keep writers reminded that they write for readers and not the other way around.

    Keep the good blogs coming!

  2. Great post, Shawn. I was 9 back when Transformers: The Movie came out and I have to say traumatizing doesn't do it justice.

    I still remember sitting there in the movie theatre with my grandmother watching this disaster unfold. It was like being on board the Titanic. You know everyone is going to die, you just don't know when or how, but it's going to be painful.

    Starscream and Optimus Prime were my favorites on the TV show, and literally within 20 minutes they were both dead. Killed by the same character, just different names.

    To add insult to injury, I don't think the creators of this film understood the other problem they created. For a big part of that movie, the bad guys won. When you watched the TV show you knew Optimus and the other autobots would ultimately prevail. Good always triumphs over evil, and in the world of television it should since sometimes the world doesn't work that way. But within the space of ten minutes Optimus was killed by Megatron in a fist fight, Megatron was rejuvinated to Galvitron, and then killed Starscream almost immediately. I remember sitting there thinking, "What??? So Megatron wins??? This sucks!"

    Then to top it off, my grandmother took me to this film because it was a cartoon show I loved watching. She knew that, I knew that. She thought maybe it was PG rated because of all the violence in the film. Until Spike dropped the S-word. Then it was clear why the movie was rated PG. Then came Ultra Magnus GDing it up. At that point I was lucky she didn't escort me out.

    Then yes, the Autobots prevailed, but the damage was already done. Junkeons were perfect in this film because that's what you felt was left after viewing the movie, a whole bunch of junk. Why couldn't Optimus have just died saving the day and defeating Unicron, instead of dying in a bar fight essentially? Wouldn't that have been a better way to end his run as a Transformer? Just a completely pointless movie, even for a child. Someone obviously thought anyone under the age of 18 that might go see this film were complete idiots and wouldn't figure out what they were doing. My only hope is that the guy that made the movie got fired and never worked in Hollywood again.

    There have only been a few stories that have succeeded at killing off major characters and not completely ruining the vibe of the film or story. Lost comes to mind, although some felt cheated at the end. The Walking Dead is another that does death well. But neither show broke the cardinal rule--You don't kill off your main character(s) until the story has been told, if ever.

    Even Michael Bay wasn't crazy enough to kill off Optimus Prime and leave him dead in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. He died, but he came back immediately. You can kill off lots of characters along the way, but you never ever kill off the main ones until all is said and done. Or like you said, if you do, fashion a way to bring them back that makes sense, just like Bay did.

    Even when Optimus Prime was brought back on the cartoon following Transformers: The Movie, it felt hokie. It felt hokie to me watching years later in reruns, having not seen it in first run because, like many, I stopped watching the cartoon immediately following the movie. There was nothing left to see for me. And parents and grandparents cringed just as much because they knew new toys were going to be sold. Fortunately for them, they didn't have to buy much.

    However, there was one killing Hasbro did that I wished they had left that way. Duke in G.I.Joe: The Movie the next year. Never liked him, thought his brother was cooler. Too much of a boy scout for me. So sometimes, maybe the rules can be broken?