Thinking Out Loud: The Limitations of Cool

One of the aspects I really enjoy about blogging is the opportunity to think out loud about ideas in a way that’s both more deliberate than chatting with friends and yet less formal than, say, academic writing. As I grapple with my own understanding of various parts of storytelling, I’m planning to use this space to share my thinking (which will hopefully lead to clarifying and improving it over time). If this just ends up being a conversation between me and myself, that’s fine, but I’d love to hear other thoughts, too!

From Flickr user Alan Levine https://www.flickr.com/photos/cogdog/6706525107/
From Flickr user Alan Levine
https://www.flickr.com/photos/cogdog/6706525107/

A warning up front: This is a long one.

Continuing to think through character development, I’ve been reflecting on some of the mistakes I’ve made creating characters in the past. Specifically, I’ve been known to mistake “being cool” for “being a developed character.” I suspect I am not the only developing writer to struggle with this.

What is “cool”?

Time for some definition work. “Cool” is one of those traits that’s inherently difficult to define, which doesn’t mean that people haven’t tried. As an obligatory Internet starting point, Wikipedia gives us the following: “Coolness is an admired aesthetic of attitude, behavior, comportment, appearance, and style, influenced by and a product of the Zeitgeist.”

Those who prefer their methodology a little more social-scientific can look to Dr. Ilan Dar-Nimrod, the lead author of the 2012 paper, “Coolness: An Empirical Investigation,” who found that survey-takers in the study deviated from is initial assumptions. Per Dr. Dar-Nimrod, “James Dean is no longer the epitome of cool. The much darker version of what coolness is still there, but it is not the main focus. The main thing is: Do I like this person? Is this person nice to people, attractive, confident, and successful? That’s cool today, at least among young mainstream individuals.”

And for those who prefer their take on coolness in the form of online advice, consider the following from the estimable (not-a-real-doctor) Dr. Nerdlove: “These are the guys who seem to always have it together, who always seem to know exactly what they’re doing and never question themselves. They’ve got a drive and surety of purpose that we rarely see. They’re insanely charismatic and attractive individuals. They seem to flow through life effortlessly as a 70’s funk track plays in the background, leaving the rest of us mere mortals to stumble along, hoping that we don’t fuck things up too much.”

Running through each of these takes, I see two major components to being cool. One is what I call performative cool. This about the aesthetics of being cool – clothes, posture, musical tastes, that sort of thing – and represents the trap I fell into semi-frequently not too long ago in character development. More on that in a bit.

The second aspect of being cool is inner cool. This is more a matter of mindset, the most visible manifestations of which become performative cool. Generally speaking, inner cool starts with confidence, indifference to authority, and a well-calibrated sense of what is and is not under one’s control. This then drives, roughly in order, the “behavior, comportment, appearance, and style,” referenced in the Wikipedia definition.

All right, so those are the basics. Now let’s complicate the idea of coolness a bit.

From Flickr user Eric.Ray https://www.flickr.com/photos/12707238@N00/16149437359/
From Flickr user Eric.Ray
https://www.flickr.com/photos/12707238@N00/16149437359/

Coolness is highly context-based. The “attitude, behavior, comportment, appearance, and style” that make someone the coolest person in a Saturday night sci-fi convention costume contest are, with very few exceptions, not going to be seen as cool at the Monday morning staff meeting. The same person can be seen as cool in both places, but to do so will require they change their outward presentation significantly.

There’s also a gendered component to cool. Looking back at the three sources I used earlier, nearly every example given of a cool person is a man. That’s fine when you’re Dr. Nerdlove and writing advice for a generally male audience. It’s more problematic for Wikipedia (lead image: Malcolm X; named examples from included chart: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Presley, Lenny Bruce, Beatles; named examples from general and US-specific text: Malcolm X, Miles Davis) and the social scientists for the 2012 paper (named examples of cool: James Dean, Miles Davis, Steve Buscemi [debated]). One could infer that the male-centric skew of the Wikipedia article is at least in part due to the male-centric skew of most social science research on the subject, at least when it comes to naming examples of cool.

So what about women? Here, coolness can become heavily dependent on audience. Especially in a society that still privileges men in many respects, and where popular culture is overwhelmingly created by men (supported by systems that passively and actively discourage women’s participation and power), we end up with specific forms of performative cool adopted by women – and written into women characters – with men as an audience.

One such form is popularly expressed by the “Cool Girl” speech from David Fincher’s Gone Girl. You can read solid discussion of and key excerpts from that speech in this article from Jezebel and this one from Salon, as well as many other places around the Internet. Other forms of male-audience cool women include the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” and the on-a-pedestal Geek Girl (not to be confused with the girl/woman who is a geek). Whatever your subculture, there’s a good chance there’s a set of traits and behaviors that can mark a woman as “cool” in the eyes of men.

What makes a woman cool to other women is tough to find addressed in general media. That’s a problem. This doesn’t mean that people aren’t talking about it. As an example, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet captures a form of performative cool that is focused on women and derived from inner cool. That’s just one strand of the conversation, and I’d love to see more mainstream discussion of women’s coolness in the eyes of other women.

I recognize that this has been a very binary conversation so far. Unfortunately, I’m not well-versed enough in nonbinary cool to be able to speak intelligently on the subject. That’s a personal failing that I’ll strive to correct soon.

How to make a character cool

OK, on to coolness as a character trait. Sticking with the performative/inner cool distinction, here are a couple “cool” character archetypes.

From Flickr user tom_bullock https://www.flickr.com/photos/tombullock/12911974673/
From Flickr user tom_bullock
https://www.flickr.com/photos/tombullock/12911974673/

The Cool Leather Coat: Think Spike’s first appearance on Buffy (when the creators assumed he wouldn’t stick around), this is the character who shows up swathed in the trappings of performative cool, but lacks substance/definition beyond their coolness and good/evil orientation

The Trojan Cool: Sticking with Buffy, this is someone like Faith, who also shows up performing cool, with a whole pile of damage quickly revealed to be hiding inside the cool exterior

Coolenstein’s Creature: Sandy at the end of Grease, and any number of teen movie protagonists who become cool after adopting contact lenses, better hair, and a suddenly acquired musical sense, these are the folks who are helped/shoved into their coolness by the people around them

The Cool Philosopher: This is the person who cultivated inner cool before the story started and spends the story explaining their cool and trying to maintain it in the face of obstacles (see, Chris Knight in Real Genius, the Dude in The Big Lebowski, Juno in Juno)

The Coolmaker: This person actively takes steps to define their own version of cool, achieving this through persistence and/or true inner cool, perhaps best exemplified by the Eleventh Doctor in Doctor Who, with honorable mentions to Jane Lane in Daria, Janis Ian in Mean Girls, and (intermittently) Barney Stinson of How I Met Your Mother

The Copycool: This is the person who’s clearly pulling inspiration from another source for their coolness, but making it work, as in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s characters in Inception (Arthur) and Looper (Joe)

Note how all of these depend on performative cool, with several of the most interesting getting at inner cool and the relationship between a character’s outer and inner coolness. One reason for this is undoubtedly that these characters are all drawn from television and movies, where cool is easy to perform but characters’ inner states of being are tougher to depict. Another reason is that performative cool is inherently easier to present quickly relative to inner cool. There’s a reason it takes at least the length of a film to get a handle on a character’s degree of inner cool.

The most interesting and successful of these archetypes take the time to interrogate the origins of a character’s cool, often exploring the vulnerabilities and the uncoolness in their past. In Spike’s case, for example, what started off as a Cool Leather Coat sketch of a character eventually turned out to be a Trojan Cool with notes of Copycool or Coolmaker (depending on who you believe and how you interpret various small comments made about Spike’s style over the years), plus the Coolenstein’s Creature effect of becoming a vampire, which adds automatic cool points.

The limitations of cool for character development

And so we finally arrive at the titular concept for this piece. The mistake I made too frequently in the past, and which we see even in the weaker offerings of professional media, was to assume that the Rule of Cool would let me get away with characters being Cool Leather Coats.

For example, I spent a lot of time in college coming up with characters and stories in a post-apocalyptic world with a hardboiled/noir tone and superpowers. Now, I’m still proud of some what I came up with there and could see parts of it making into future work. Too many of my characters in that world, however, were Cool Leather Coats. This really only worked in one case, where the character wasn’t meant to be well-defined, and was instead more of a force-of-nature part of the setting than a person. Otherwise, I had lots of characters with cool trappings but unclear or clichéd motivations, inconsistent behavior, and a palpable lack of reasons for the audience to invest in them.

The limitations of cool extend beyond a shallow emphasis on performative cool, too. If too many of the characters in the same story have all achieved perfect inner cool and are meandering through the world doing whatever they like in whatever cool way they want, the audience’s sense of stakes and investment in the conflict will suffer. Conflict doesn’t matter when no character is fazed by the conflict. Even Cool Philosophers like Chris Knight must find their cool tested and confront stakes that threaten whatever foundation they built their cool on in the first place.

Also, as discussed above, the gendered aspect of defining cool makes it easy for many authors to fall into creating “cool” female characters whose coolness is their defining character trait and who get little else to define them. That’s weak storytelling, and something we should all strive to watch out for in our own creations.

Conclusion

Coolness, then, is a spice that helps a dish in the right quantities but should not be allowed to overwhelm all of the other flavors. Well-developed cool characters should find their performative cool interrogated and their inner cool challenged. Cool Leather Coats should be kept to a minimum, and I would even go so far as to say that cool leather coats as a fashion item should be rare, too. And many of us can do more to challenge the current male-centered definitions of cool.

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2 thoughts on “Thinking Out Loud: The Limitations of Cool

  1. It’s, like, a narrative rule that anyone named Dr. Nimrod must be correct about absolutely anything they say because the inverse (Dr. Nimrod is a nimrod) is just too easy.
    Great piece on Coolness, duuuude. It’s tough quantifying something so subjective but this was a superb attempt. Thanks for sharing!

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