Imagine I’m in NXT.
I’ve been there a while and I’m trying to create my character. Who am I? Who am I going to be when I step out from behind that curtain? I’ve been racking my brains for months, trying to find something that’s both an overblown me and a marketable commodity.
Finally, after months of trying out some of the worst promos and outfits you’ll ever see, I’ve had a few ideas that work and one is good enough to have been approved. It’s not necessarily a ground breaking idea, certainly not the best one of the bunch I pitched, but still, the word has come down from on high. The Puppet is a go.
I have my character outline, I’ve been working on mannerisms and catchphrases and I’m ready to go back out there. I don’t need to work on my move set, because that hasn’t changed, all I need to do is rename a few of them, make sure Michael Cole has his set words to say when I use them and I can just start getting over.
I can’t wait to get out there and make sure people are familiar with The Puppet and know what to expect. I can’t wait for my match templates to get known so people can get excited at the right moments, comfortable in a fluffy, warm surrounding of familiarity like a favourite jumper. I can’t wait for them to be able to finish my sentences with me because they know what I’m going to say.
And you know what’s great about the character? If I get injured, someone else can just jump right into my shoes and become a new version of The Puppet and everything can go on without me, waiting for me to step right back in when I get back.
The other idea might have been better. I might have preferred it, but really, was The Chancer ever really going to get over? I’d have had to use all the aspects of being a chancer, changing my game every time the crowd saw me. I’d have to adapt to my opponents and the situation. I’d have to be unpredictable to be a real chancer and can you really get over when you’re unpredictable?
As The Puppet I can make sure I’m always on that marketable message. The Puppet doesn’t have to be boring, he can still react to the situation, but because there’s always someone pulling his strings, he can make sure that reaction is tempered and balanced and on-message.
I mean, who can tell what The Chancer’s going to do or say next? By definition you’d have to not be able to predict anything, or the character doesn’t work. It’d be like having a lunatic fringe character who played by the rules and never did anything remotely crazy. Nobody would do that.
If I’m too unpredictable people will get bored and turn off, plus how can you build a brand around an unpredictable chancer? A wrestler has to be a marketable brand, we know that. They’re really keen on that, it sells shirts and action figures. A prize fighter who really turns up the heat when it really matters is a marketable brand, particularly when he’s only looking out for himself. People resonate with that. A brand like that can really go places. A brand like a surly, put-upon big man, kept down by the brass but without any really clear identity, drive or reason for being there, that would never work. Nobody would do that.
It’s easier for everyone if I’m The Puppet. To make sure everything is just so.
Only, it’s a pile of crap, right? If you offered people a choice of those two characters to watch, I’m willing to bet hardly anyone would go for The Puppet. Nobody wants the same thing week in, week out, etched into their TV screens like an entertainment tattoo – unpredictability is what makes life and characters interesting.
Of course a wrestler needs to be a brand and that brand needs to be marketable. None of that means a character, or brand for that matter, has to be one-dimensional. You can create a character that acts unpredictably but has a core that’s constant. Steve Austin’s character was almost exactly that. Bray Wyatt could be exactly that, but they never quite take it far enough and he never evolves beyond his basic mantras and motivations no matter who he is facing or what has happened with who he faced last. He’s unpredictable in the same way, every feud.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe most people like safe characterisation like most people like fluffy jumpers when it’s cold. Maybe they like being nice and snug and that’s fine, except when that’s all you have.
When you’re writing a story – any story – the key element is that the protagonist should be changed in some way by having experienced the story. WWE characters aren’t changed, ever, by any of the experiences they go through. They don’t evolve, they don’t react. If Roman Reigns had, as a result of every match he experienced, changed something in either move set, approach, ring tactics or just in attitude in a relentless drive to improve to reach the top, then his story to the title would be a real story, but it’s not.
It’s a marketing exercise.
Roman Reigns is a brochure. He’s a brand, but one that’s indelibly printed on the WWE’s marketplace, he’s that entertainment tattoo that people regret having got, but that a lot of people still seem to like when they see it.
WWE isn’t a choose your own adventure though, they’re not supposed to bend the story to what the crowd chants for, that’s not how stories work. The thing is, they’re not giving us anything else, they’re not making us ‘turn the page’.
They’re trying to create a brand in Roman Reigns, but instead they’re using a branding iron on us all. The problem is, the mark we’re all left with is a bit forgettable.
John Cena is the WWE’s secondary logo. When you think of WWE you think of John Cena (and Hulk Hogan), or at least that’s what the surveys say. It’s an important aspect of the character that if I were asked to describe John Cena to you, it’s easy – hustle, loyalty respect. You want some, you come get some because he never backs down. He’s the measuring stick everyone else has to (apparently) match up against. I can cut promos for him because I know what John’s character cares about, what motivates him, what he hates and what gets him really riled up. I know his sense of humour is a bit embarrassing but he backs that up with great matches he puts everything into.
If you ask me to describe Roman Reigns…well, he was in the Shield, I can believe THAT about him…he’s related to the Rock somehow…no, I’m struggling already. There’s nothing there. It’s a branding iron caricature like The Puppet. John Cena became the WWE’s second logo because he was something before that – Roman Reigns hasn’t been anything. I can’t think of a single thing about the character that I can hang my hat on, like I can hang my hat on John Cena, whether I like him as a hat stand or not.
I’m not saying Roman is the only one like this or even the worst one by any means, there’s not a great deal to say about the characters of a lot of the wrestlers on the main WWE roster today, Kevin Owens, Brock Lesnar and John Cena aside. They’re aside because they’re the only ones who react to anything. Everyone else just resets to their default brand position after every experience.
WWE – stop trying to sell me things by giving me a glossy brochure. Give me a well thought out story and make me turn the page.