You might not know his name. You may not know he was played by Christopher Lloyd. But when someone tells me to envision a crazy, wild-eyed scientist, you know who I think of? Dr. Emmett L. Brown. His character stands out as one that is well rounded, an intriguing personality, and frankly – I think we all wish we knew somebody a little like him. But don’t worry – I won’t tell.
I’m not the only one that thinks Doc Brown is remarkable. Empire Magazine ranked him #76 on their list of the 100 Greatest Movie characters, and this is what they have to say on the subject:
The white hair may be standard issue mad scientist, but Doctor Emmett Brown, creator of the flux capacitor and a man incapable of normal social interaction because his head is too busy buzzing with ideas, is a genuinely likeable creation, a world away from stereotypes. So much so that, when he gets shot by Libyans ten minutes in, we’re sad even though we’ve only just met the man. And joyous again when we meet his younger self. Now that’s acting.
And that last sentence says a lot: Now that’s acting. If George Clooney or John Goodman were to step into the character of Emmett Brown, it wouldn’t be the same. He’d still be charming, but he wouldn’t be him. Part of the charm of the character comes directly from the quirkiness of Christopher Lloyd himself. The actor brings just as much to the character as the writers do.
Why does this all matter in a writing blog? How much different are books from movies? In the end, they both tell a story, just through different mediums. Characters are of equal importance in both. It is the characters that the readers/viewers fall in love with, the characters they talk about. Sure, Lothlorien is lovely, but isn’t Galadriel haunting? The world can only handle so many Harry Potters, so many Edward Cullens. There comes a time to break through the mold and start creating Doc Browns.
Let me tell you a little more about Doc Brown. First of all, he has his signature appearance: the crazy white hair is a must. It’s Einstein-esque, which gives him the feel of an inventor from the very first. His eyes are always very wide, as though he is discovering something new every moment. He’s very conservative – you never see Doc Brown in bold colors. The brightest we get is a muted blue Hawaiian shirt, and if you live in a touristy place, you know that is a darned conservative Hawaiian shirt. It’s also important to see that Doc never changes – they make a sort of joke about it in the second movie when they say he’s (basically) had plastic surgery to make himself look younger, so he’s wearing a mask so Marty will recognise him. Lo and behold – when he takes off the mask, he looks exactly the same.
These sorts of things are only stereotypical when for a reason, and they are never blown out of proportion. I sincerely doubt that the way Doc dresses and looks, anyone can truly state his age. That ambiguity means a lot – the traditional age-related assumptions go out the window. That’s great! Also, notice how un-James-Bond-like he is. The further away from a perfect appearance you can get, the better.
Personality is next. Doc is quirky, to be sure, but we all are in our own ways. He’s not so quirky that he cannot talk to people, but he chooses not to associate. He doesn’t stand out in a crowd the way a stereotypical “crazy” would – or, at least, the high schoolers at Hill Valley high in 1955 don’t seem to notice he’s around. I think my favorite part of his personality is how literally he takes everything. Certainly, this is realistic enough because as an inventor he is trying to understand everything, but it also makes for subtle comedy: I think my favorite line is when Marty say’s “That’s heavy…” and Doc says “There’s that word again; ‘heavy’. Why are things so heavy in the future? Is there a problem with the earth’s gravitational pull?” You also know that Doc doesn’t like to be alone, because he keeps a pet dog at all times (Copernicus, then Einstein), and he marries and has children in the third movie. He is passionate, and needed someone to understand his passion.
And, do I need to go into catchphrases? Whenever someone says “Great Scott,” soon to follow is a conversation about Doc Brown, the Back to the Future trilogy, and/or time travel.
With a closer look at Doc Brown, is it so difficult to see why he’s such a likeable character? He is his own person: charming, witty, intelligent, caring… but at the same time, he struggles with the same basic human needs as the rest of us. He doesn’t have to be tall, blonde, or dreamy to be a truly great character… he is a great character because of his reality.
So go, writers all, and show me that you you have a unique, interesting character in all of you. Show me your Doc Brown.
And, as a side note for those Back to the Future fans and Behind the Scenes nerds like me out there – here’s an old promotion for Universal Studios Florida, filmed in 1988, starring Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown, your tour guide.