ISBN-10: 0857301179 ISBN-13: 978-0857301178
Well, it’s been while (again) since I posted so, as I have just finished Lucy’s book on writing diverse characters, I thought it was a good opportunity to get a post up on the old page.
Despite recent (slow) changes with films like Wonderwoman (2017), Get Out (2017) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018), the majority of mainstream media product is designed around white, middle-class males who are also most likely able-bodied and most definitely not gay. As Lucy opines in her introduction, this is frustrating, and inaccurate, when you consider a world where the majority of the population are not white, where up to 10% identify with the LGBT community, 51% are women and nearly 20% of people are living with a disability.
Changes are coming, but progress is slow. Writers and creatives have a responsibility to tell stories that are truthful (whether they are pure fiction, fact, fantasy or reality) and that can’t happen if the image of the white, middle-class, able-bodied, hetero, male hero persists. He will always have a place, hell, who doesn’t love a good Tom Cruise actioner or a bit of Bourne? But the world is a huge, mixed-bag of people, all waiting for THEIR story to be told; and audiences want to see themselves reflected on screen or in the pages of a novel. And this is what Lucy’s book is about; thinking about diversity (whether you like that word or not – read the book, you’ll see what I (Lucy) is getting at) and how we can all write better characters and stories by thinking about the norm and how we can shake it up. It’s like the process of subverting tropes – so much of the stuff we write has been done before (white male leads) but how can we shake things up and put a fresh coat of paint on it by simply thinking more about diversity?
The book itself is split into 6 sections, with the majority of the “good stuff” in the central 4 chapters (not that the rest of it is bad or anything):
- What is Diversity?
- Heroes, Sheroes and Vile Villains: The Protagonist and Antagonist
- Secondaries, Sidekicks and Subordinates
- Peripheral Pointers
And, as you can see, the structure is all about exploring what diversity means and then looking at how that can be applied across your characters . This is not just about a token effort to make your lead diverse; it is not called a “range” of characters for the fun of it!
The advice within works equally well if you are working on a novel, or a screenplay (or any kind of writing that requires character development) and explores the current “white standard” characters that we are all very familiar with, promoting consideration of how those characters can be traded up to embrace more diversity, or, if you like, more reality, when considering the make-up of the world around us.
However, this book is not just a primer for discussing diversity, although it does a very good job at that. It is, actually, a great introduction to the art of writing in itself. It may not go into the detail of structure and concept like Vogler, Field or McKee (all men!) do, but it does provide a good grounding in what is definitely one of (if not the) most important components of a good story – Character. If you have never read a screenwriting book before, this wouldn’t be a bad place to start. While understanding structure is vital, understanding your audience and how your characters affect story and create sympathy and empathy with your audience is just as important, and Lucy gives you a crash course in how to do this in her book.
While at work a few days ago (don’t tell the Boss) I was daydreaming about a script re-write I am working on when I came across the following tweet by Lucy V Hay highlighting advice from writer Julian Fellowes:
— Shouty Writing Tips (@Bang2write) 27 June 2016
(the full post is available HERE)
What caught my eye was Tip #7 which dismisses the expectation that all good characters must change over the course of their journey. Fellowes was more of the opinion that it is just as important to ensure the audience has empathy with your characters. This was timely as I am currently working on a script where the protagonist does not necessarily change that much during her story; she perhaps acts more as a catalyst for change among other characters. She changes a little, but not as drastically as many other movie characters who learn great lessons through the course of their arcs.
Now, change is a cornerstone of story-telling techniques as it informs the character arc, another common aspect of screenwriting teaching. Wikipedia describes it as:
“A character arc is the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. If a story has a character arc, the character begins as one sort of person, and during the story, things happen which gradually transforms him or her into a different sort of person.”
Character arc – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
and even more “respected” sources describe the importance of change:
“The finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes that inner nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling.”
Robert MCkee, “Story” (1999, p104).
“In a sense, stories are about change. And the measuring stick that tells us who succeeds and who doesn’t is seen in the ability to change. Good guys are those who willingly accept change and see it as a positive force. Bad guys are those who refuse to change, who curl up and die in their own juices, unable to move out of the rut their lives represent. To succeed in life is to be able to transform. That’s why it’s the basis of not only good storytelling but also of the world’s best known religions. Change is good because it represents re-birth, the promise of a fresh start.”
Blake Snyder, “Save the Cat” (2005, p136).
Which is exactly right – change makes for good-storytelling and fulfilling stories . The change in Michael Corleone in the Godfather (1972) is a perfect example of how a character can change. It might not be the most positive change, but he does change, and the audience is fascinated by this growth and how it affects the character and others around him. Want something more light-hearted? How about Lightning McQueen from Cars (2006)? He starts off pretty self-centred and selfish, but ends up changing through the course of the film, learning to slow down and be more considerate to those around him. Clearly more change. Indeed, grab a stone and throw it at the IMDB and you are very likely to hit a story that features interesting characters developed through change.
Despite this change, Michael and Lightning are two very different characters who also have something else in common; empathy. Regardless of what change they go through, audiences empathise with the characters. Even where that change is negative. We do so with Michael in the Godfather as he avenges his father and protects his family – a primal desire/urge within the vast majority of us.
However, what is also interesting about Cars is that Lightning’s change is catalysed by the characters around him. He gets to know the residents of Radiator Springs and their lifestyle and they affect him, helping him change. The characters around him don’t particularly change themselves (maybe Doc Hudson softens a little) but that doesn’t necessarily make them any less interesting. They all have a story and personality that creates empathy with the audience without the change that is considered vital.
So what’s going on here?
Well, perhaps characters DON’T have to go through change to lead an interesting story, as Julian Fellowes suggests. Perhaps interesting, empathetic characters are just as important, and they don’t have to change to generate an emotional connection with the audience. Put a character in a story that has conflict, that gives them a goal and a purpose that the audience can empathise with and you can still end up with an enjoyable and popular film.
Don’t believe me?
to name a few examples. The characters in these films don’t undergo any substantial change during their stories, but they are highly regarded and well-loved films. Why? Because of good characterisation, great conflict and drama, etc etc. Ripley doesn’t change during the film (apart from learning about xenomorphs VERY quickly) and starts and ends the story as a kick-ass, Nostromo crew member. When does James Bond EVER learn anything or change? Dumb and Dumber says it all – no learning here… move along please.
Interestingly, Forrest Gump is similar to the supporting cast in CARS in that the protagonist, Forrest, doesn’t change, but he does influence the people he touches throughout his life, helping them grow and change – think of Captain Dan!
This is a great revelation and another chance to “clarify” a screenwriting rule. While “change” is an important aspect of many films, it is just another Tool in our writing kit-bag, not the absolute Rule that many of us (myself included) learn about early in our careers and think we have to stick to. Characters can (and do) change, it’s a fact, we see it all the time. BUT, they don’t HAVE to change, there is just as much evidence for that. The common denominator, however, on both sides of the argument is strong, compelling and empathetic characters that an audience will get behind and root for.
So that gives us something to aim for.
How do you feel about character change as a Screenwriting Rule?
Have you ever written a story in which a character doesn’t change?
- Characters you Admire
- Know your Audience
- Conflict and Emotional Arc
- Know your Characters – part 1
- Know your Characters – part 2
The Transit of Mercury didn’t pan out quite as I had hoped on Monday, with pretty much the entire World’s quota of fluffy grey clouds hovering over my house for most of the day. So, with some spare time, we chose to watch Ex Machina instead; another disc that has been sitting, waiting for a long time.
It was certainly worth the wait.
Ex Machina is a mesmerising exploration of the consequences of advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and, to my non-scientific mind, felt like a glimpse into a possible future where the smartest person in the room is also the artificial one. As Dr Malcolm might suggest, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.
The story follows Caleb, the lucky employee of Nathan, a technological genius who has chosen Caleb to apply the Turing Test to his lifelike AI Android Ava. Rather, a slightly twisted take on the Turing Test where the tester knows they are sat opposite a computer but are testing their capacity to believe that what they know is a collection of nuts and bolts could actually be human.
And that’s all I will say about the plot as it is a fantastic film, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Sci-Fi. I am sure that those with more knowledge of this area would be able to find holes in it, much like they did with the Garland-penned Sunshine, but that is not why I choose to watch movies – I want to be transported to a world that is believeable, not necessarily realistic. Although I think Ex Machina does both extremely well.
However, what really struck me with Ex Machina was the characters. The three main characters are very different. Caleb comes across as a fairly strait-laced IT geek, very much in contrast to Nathan’s heavy-drinking, aggressive Alpha-Male. In between is Ava; inquisitive and almost child-like. Each character is different, but they are so well written, you find yourself empathising with them all. There is no clear “good or bad guy” in this movie, each of the characters have their own agendas and each could be considered a Protagonist and Antagonist in their own right.
You may dislike Nathan because of the way he treats Caleb and Ava, but that doesn’t mean you can’t identify or empathise with his situation, his genius or what he is trying to achieve. And, I suspect, we will all be able to identify with the relationship that develops between Caleb and Ava and the reasons for that relationship. It is this empathy that helps draw us into the story and the twists and turns that come our way by the end of the film, and it helps us understand and rationalise the choices each character makes on that journey. It also makes us question those choices after the credits roll.
In a recent post I talked about the importance of dialogue and how that is not the be all and end all of a good script. Ex Machina is almost the polar opposite of Mad Max in that it is much more dialogue heavy. And it is great dialogue, the exchanges between Caleb and Nathan are tech-heavy, philosophical discussions and work in superb contrast to the more innocent, awkward and sometimes flirty conversations between Caleb and Ava. There is no doubting that there is great dialogue.
But I don’t remember much of it.
What I do remember are the characters, their motivations, actions and emotions, and that is what drives this film and reinforces, to me, the importance of great characters and how they will elevate your story beyond mere words on a page.
Ex Machina is a stunning piece of film-making and I would recommend anyone who hasn’t seen it, who likes good sci-fi, to give it a go. Actually, even if you don’t like sci-fi, give it a go anyway, you might just be surprised.
If you have see Ex Machina, why not let me know what you thought of it below… in a non-spoilery kind of way!
Directed and written by John Hughes
Just a quick entry this week because writing time is fairly limited as I approach the last few days of NaNoWriMo and the growing concern that I might not make it to the 50,000 word target on Monday! So I thought I’d cheat a little and just post clip from one of the greatest comedies of all time and one that is perfect for Thanksgiving; Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
This superbly written comedy of errors that unfolds as two polar opposites share the titular vehicles in an attempt to get home for Thanksgiving is a wonderful example of just how important character is to a story. The two leads in this film bring the characters to life from the page and invest them with so much humanity and believable qualities that we, as an audience, are right up there on screen with them. We all know characters that are like them in some way and we have all been in a situation where someone we know or have met is annoying the hell out of us.
The scene above plays out perfectly as we are, at first, also irritated by Del and share Neal’s frustration with the situation he finds himself in. The scene twists and turns and beautifully lays their cards out on the table as Neal vents spleen and Del opens his heart about the way Neal behaves to him. We see Del’s vulnerability coming through his annoying veneer and catch a fleeting glimpse of the the warm, family man, that is lurking inside Neal. It sets the rest of the film up nicely and, although we might be able to see where it is going from this point, it is a hell of a lot of fun going on the journey.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles is my wife’s favourite film and definitely one of mine. It is as funny now as it was the first time you saw it and that is largely down to excellent characters that we can all relate to.
Right, I’m off to count my NaNo words… again.
Have a great Thanksgiving!
You gotta identify with your situation/characters, you can’t just write “cool”. What would make you act in that way?
Rule #20 is pretty much a bed-fellow for Rule #15: Know your Characters (part 1) which explores how we should be careful not to think in terms of “what would I do” in that situation, but what would our characters do in that situation. To be able to do that convincingly and effectively we really need to know and understand our characters inside out.
Rule #20 has the same potential pitfall in asking you, “what would you do?” when, in fact, we don’t necessarily want to know what the author would do. While there are always going to be elements of our own psyche in the characters we write, they are also (hopefully) fully-formed people in their own right, and we need to have them reacting in ways that match emotionally and psychologically.
Another step towards this (as well as knowing how they would react in any given situation) is to develop situations around them that reflect the story theme and their emotional development. Develop situations that we can see them getting into. These may be outlandish and even absurd (depending on the plot) but also perfectly acceptable if written honestly. As Rule #15 also showed us, honesty provides credibility. If we build worlds and develop characters carefully, we can throw them into any situation as long as it “fits” with that world and character.
So a Nun winning a kick-boxing competition may seem like a ridiculous idea in the first instance, but suppose the nuns need to raise money for homeless kids, and one of the nuns shows a propensity for martial arts, we can develop a world in which this wouldn’t seem that crazy… although probably a comedy world, not a serious biopic! (Unless anyone knows any differently?)
To do that convincingly, we need to know our characters, understand their world and develop situations in which they can act believeably within the world we have set-up.
The rule also goes on to dissuade us from simply writing “cool” to come up with interesting characters. We can have cool characters, but they can go wrong easily, being cool for cool’s sake, rather than being emotionally empathetic and honest characters that audiences can relate to. They just become thin characters and stereotypes that we have seen time after time.
So, along with Rule #15, rule #20 should have us thinking about the characters we develop and the worlds we build for them. If we develop emotionally honest characters and put them in honest situations, which relate to the world in which they exist, then we will be writing believable stories regardless of how outlandish the wider premise might be.
Do you identify with your characters?
Or do you find that they are strangers when you start writing them?
And if you really want to dig into characters, go and check out Go Into the Story, Scott is all about Character!
Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for the last Rule #22 – Pare it down and Build it up!
Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!
(Thanks again to Alex Eylar for permission to use his great images)
Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
Coincidence happens all the time in real-life, it is something we are aware of and deal with every day – we might get a bit excited by a coincidence, but that soon wears off as we move on to the next thrilling occurrence in our daily-lives. Rule #19 tells us what to do about coincidence in our scripts. Like any screenwriting rule and everything we are told to never do, it is really just a guide, but we do need to be careful we don’t rely on coincidence too much and end up making lazy writing choices.
This is why coincidences are dangerous in screenwriting. They might be “fun” for a few seconds, but the novelty soon wears off and, in most instances, the audience may feel cheated that an “easy out” has been used in a given situation. As we saw in Rule #1: Characters you Admire, audiences want to watch people struggling to achieve their goals, fighting antagonistic forces and see them go through the ringer as they travel along their arc. If we set them up with a goal that appears to be impossible to obtain, but suddenly let them reach it through a coincidence, there is no fun, no empathy, no sympathy or tension as we don’t get to witness the struggle. If Batman was losing in the midst of climactic battle and suddenly found out he could fly like Superman, I think most of us would feel cheated – personally I would probably walk out of the cinema.
One “recent” example of how a coincidence annoyed me personally was Star Trek
Kirk is banished from the Enterprise and ejected in a pod onto a nearby planet. He crashes, is stranded, chased by bigger and bigger creatures and, just at the point he was about to be eaten, other-Spock appears from nowhere to save his life. Now, I realise they HAD to meet for the story, there is a Starfleet base on this planet (new-Spock isn’t as heartless as we think) and other-Spock explains why he was stranded on the planet, but it feels a little contrived that they were so close and Kirk, running in blind panic, would luckily happen upon other-Spock’s cave. Now, it isn’t terrible, and I can forgive it as the rest of the film is fantastic blockbuster fare but, every time I watch it, those scenes bug me ever so slightly. (Of course, I might just be thinking about it too much….)
So try to avoid getting characters out of trouble with a coincidence. The audience may not thank you.
However, using coincidence to get characters INTO trouble is a much more acceptable way to use them. The idea of “mistaken identity” is probably a classic example of this. North by North West employs this method as Cary Grant’s character is mistaken for a secret agent in a coincidence that kicks off the rest of the film. Implemented in this way, the coincidence can be used to great effect to throw your character into the “new world” and can often be used to comical effect. However, it is much more easily forgiven and accepted at the start of a story as the rest of the film will see our protagonist reacting in a proactive, decision-making way as a result of the coincidence.
Of course there are always exceptions. We saw in Rule #13: Passive is Poison that audiences also like active characters; decisive, proactive characters that get themselves into trouble. If you frame a coincidence as arising from a series of definite characters choices, you are more likely to get away with them, as a pro-active character has put themselves in that position, rather than just being saved by providence. I suspect this is a common trait with comedy and farce.
Ultimately, your finale should not be dealt with through a lazy, obvious coincidence unless the story absolutely and utterly calls for it.
So coincidence is another tool in the writing arsenal that can help our stories. But be careful how and when you use it.
Have you used coincidence to get characters out of trouble?
How did you make it work for your story?
Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #20 – Deconstruction
Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!
(Thanks again to Alex Eylar for permission to use his great images)
I’ve watched Interstellar a couple of times now and still think it is a (possibly flawed) masterpiece of film-making. It has drawn a variety of different opinions and, like any good movie, seems to be loved and hated in equal measure.
I’m not, however, writing about it to try and argue the case for it’s status as modern classic, or to try and change people’s minds about it. If you didn’t enjoy it, you didn’t – that’s the nature of the beast. If everyone liked the same things, then cinema going would soon become an increasingly uninspiring experience.
No, what this post is about is the soundtrack; that sometimes invisible component of a film that we may not always take notice of, and the importance of the soundtrack to our experience of film. When I am writing I listen to soundtracks. Partly because they are lyric-free and less distracting, but also because they help me get into a filmic frame of mind. At the moment I am polishing a family-friendly script and find myself listening to a lot of Pixar Soundtracks to get me in the mood. If I am writing something more dramatic then I may chose more appropriate music for that project.
And that is the beauty of a great soundtrack. It works well with the genre and type/style of film and also becomes synonymous with that film so that any hearing of that soundtrack instantly stirs the same feelings you had watching that movie. The soundtrack is a big part of generating the emotions we feel during a film.
When we hear the theme music from Star Wars
or Jaws, for example
we are instantly transported back to those film-worlds and the emotions that came with them; that first note of Williams’s Jaws theme is enough to raise the hair on the back of your neck. While theme tunes can be memorable in this way, whole soundtracks can have a massive impact on the viewer, even if each part is not as instantly recognisable as one of Williams’ classics.
Take Under the Skin for example, Johnathan Glazer’s beguiling sci-fi that follows Scarlet Johansson’s alien experiencing (and occasionally killing) the inhabitants of Earth and what it means to be human. The film is odd and unsettling, permeated with an atmosphere that makes you uncomfortable helped, in no small way, by Mica Levi’s stunning soundtrack.
The film is unsettling and her soundtrack cements this with eerie strings and unexplained sounds that echo some of the strange sounds found on the 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack. Under the Skin is a marmite film, but well worth checking out.
The Under the Skin soundtrack is eerie and confusing, mirroring the unsettling nature of the film and the confusion experienced by the lead character. Because of this it is easy to see how the soundtrack of a film can behave like a character itself, developing emotion in the audience and offering an important contribution to the overall experience.
Which brings us back to Interstellar and Hans Zimmer’s glorious soundtrack.
(There are some major plot points related to the music – you have been warned!)
What I noticed as I have listened to it over and over again is how closely the music mirrors the action onscreen, swelling with the emotional highs and lows, and echoing the more sensitive moments with softer, more plaintive melodies. So, I thought I would discuss a few of these moments. While I appreciate that a lot of soundtracks do this, there was something about Interstellar that just “worked”. The first thing my father-in-law commented on after watching it was the music.
Early in the film, there is a scene with Coop telling his daughter, Murphy that he is leaving, and could be gone for a long time. She is upset and doesn’t want him to go, he is upset as she won’t say goodbye. As the scene plays out, the track STAY plays over the action.
Building up slowly through the tender, initial moments of the scene, it builds and builds slowly as the emotional impact increases and we share the feelings Coop and Murph are experiencing. This intensity increases as Murph’s anger increases, the whole thing reaching a crescendo of music and emotion as Coop drives off in his car, without the goodbye he wanted and as Murph tries to follow when it is just too late. The crescendo mirrors the explosion of the shuttle launch that the film cuts to in the final moments of this scene.
Later in the film as the exploration team arrive at the first planet on the other side of the black hole, looking for signs of Dr Miller, Zimmer again starts small with the track MOUNTAINS, beginning with just a simple ticking to reinforce the importance of time on this planet where 1 hour of time costs 7 years on Earth.
Again the intensity builds as they find wreckage, realise that Miller is dead, that they need her data and, at 2:00 in the track that, “…those aren’t mountains”. The “reveal” explodes onto screen with the high point of the track reflecting the height of the enormous wave bearing down on the shuttle – and all the while the ticking continues in the background as a reminder.
Thirdly, there are two tracks that work together that I keep listening to. COWARD and DETACH which play into each other and cover a later stage in the movie.
COWARD covers the scenes when Dr Mann’s character strands a confused Coop and tries to save what he sees as the most important mission, Plan B, the new Earth Colony – no one is going home.
Leaving Coop for dead, he strikes out for the Endurance to carry out the mission, chased by Dr Brand and the rescued Coop. The scenes are cut with images of an older Murphy as she starts to figure things out – the building tempo mirroring the race against time for everyone. Again Zimmer starts out quietly and builds as the severity of the situation dawns on Coop and Brand and, at the same time, the audience. There is a moment of silence as the airlock is blown out – we share the shock of Coop and Brand and the silence of Dr Mann. Then the music builds and builds again as they try to dock with the endurance and stabilise its spin. The frantic notes adding to the white-knuckle emotion of their last chance.
After COWARD, DETACH takes us towards the black hole and to a big decision for Coop.
The music builds as they slingshot around the black hole, all the while permeating the scenes with the same motifs as the STAY track. Then silence as the fuel runs out which builds again to the final fanfare as Coop detaches and says goodbye to Brand. The build up with the reflections of STAY remind us of his daughter, Murphy and his relationship with Brand. This is the point he realises he is never going to see his daughter again but he has a chance to save another woman he cares for and, potentially, the human race if he makes his sacrifice…
Interstellar isn’t the only film that uses it’s soundtrack so well but I obviously don’t have space to discuss every soundtrack I like here – I barely have enough space to discuss Interstellar and there is so much more to be said than my simple interpretations! However, I think it is one of the most powerful soundtracks I have listened to in recent years and it stands on its own feet even without the onscreen images. When it is coupled with the movie it was written for, the two elements combine to give the viewer a visual and auditory feast of epic proportions. Every last ounce of emotion is wrung from the story by Zimmer’s soundtrack, without which, I doubt there would have been as many goosebumps.
With that much impact on the viewer, the music really is another character, dragging the audience into the story, generating empathy and emotion along with the onscreen characters.
As writers we are told not to make statements about music or dictate what the soundtrack to our story should be, and I am not trying to suggest that we should or shouldn’t, but it can’t hurt to be aware of the importance of the soundtrack and the extra character it can lend to any film.
What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
Today, Rule #16 asks us to think about the stakes of the story. More specifically, what is at stake for our protagonist – what do they stand to lose if they fail at their quest? We saw in Rule #1: Characters you Admire that it is the obstacles to achieving their goals, and the struggle they go through to beat them, that endear us to characters in stories. By throwing bigger and bigger obstacles at them, and making it harder and harder for them to achieve their goals we, as writers, can generate greater and greater sympathy and empathy for our characters and, most importantly, ensure our viewers are fully invested in the story.
This is the same regardless of whether or not we are supposed to love or loathe a protagonist, throwing obstacles at them and making them struggle will generate empathy in the audience. We don’t have to like a character to understand them.
And it is not just physical obstacles. The struggle the protagonist faces will also come from within via their internal needs and be wrapped up in their external WANTS. This is important, as it allows us to bombard our protagonist from all sides with a variety of obstacles, making for more interesting and complex characters. And reinforces the need to develop convincing, well formed characters as we learnt in Rule #15: Know you Characters.
And this is where coming up with a worthy Nemesis is vital. The biggest and best obstacle to a protagonist is a worthy nemesis who is in direct opposition to the protagonist. You don’t just want someone making life difficult for your protagonist, but someone who is actively seeking to stop them achieving their goals as they too are fighting to reach their own, and where the only way to do that is to stop the protagonist achieving theirs.
To ensure the nemesis is an effective obstacle, it helps to make them stronger and give them the advantage over your protagonist. Make the protagonist work damn hard to win out. Don’t make it too easy and make sure success, or failure, is held back until the very last moment. The audience will get bored if it is clear the protagonist will prevail from the moment the nemesis appears. But throw them into a conflict in which they start well, but then get knocked back, rise again and get kicked down to the very depths of despair – the “all is lost” moment – and the audience will be in the palm of your hand.
I’ve used the example of The Man of Steel before, but think it gives a good example of how you can pit your protagonist against a variety of obstacles to raise the stakes.
Clark Kent is on Earth and an outcast. He wants to find himself but, as a young man, he has obstacles thrown in his way that prevent him being himself and discovering who he really is. Obstacles that are so strong, with very high stakes – his adoptive father’s life. As he gets older, and he is starting to figure this stuff out, the bigger obstacle of General Zod appears. A Nemesis in direct opposition to the protagonist. Clark wants to be welcome in his new life, his adoptive planet, the life he knows. Whereas Zod wants to take that away and create a new Krypton in the ashes of the Earth – the life he knows. And it isn’t easy for Superman to prevail. He may have super powers, but so does Zod, and so do the soldiers that come with him. Soldiers who are trained to defend their planet, species and way of life. Superman is out-numbered, and out-gunned and we fear for his ability to prevail. Even though we know he is going to, the obstacles and stakes that are raised – i.e. losing his friends, planet and life – mean we are invested in the story and empathise with Clark.
Of course, this works the other way as well. The protagonist doesn’t have to prevail, but the work they put in to the struggle and the obstacles they face will mean the audience still feels empathy for them and the emotional wallop of a failure can be just as powerful as the euphoria of a victory.
So, what is it that your protagonist is striving for? Put something at stake, something important, and then throw everything you can at them to make sure the struggle is as hard as it can be and that the audience identify and empathise with them. Take the audience to the edge of despair with your protagonist and then let them share in the agony or the ecstasy of the denouement.
Conflict creates Drama.
It’s a lot more fun to watch.
And a lot more fun to write.
How do you make your characters struggle and raise the stakes?
Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #17 – Practice!
Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!
(Thanks again to Alex Eylar for permission to use his great images)
If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
At first glance, Rule #15 may appear to be asking the question, “what would you do in this situation?” But it goes a bit further than that. The audience doesn’t really want to know what YOU would do in a given situation, they want to know what your character would do. You have to put your own world-view aside and get into the mind of your character to understand and instinctively know what THEY would do in a given situation.
To do this you have to know your character, their needs and wants, their outlook on the world you are creating and their relationship with the theme of the story. All of those things will influence the way they react when faced with a question, threat, antagonist or decision.
Some people may do this by writing extensive biographies from birth to just before the story starts, so that they know every little bit of their character’s psyche and how they will react. Others may use questionnaires or interviews with their characters to get to know them. Ultimately, you need to use the tools that work for you to get to know your characters inside out, so they come alive on paper and make the right decisions at the appropriate point in the story.
We want to know what your protagonist will do when on her knees and facing the barrel of a gun, NOT what you would do. You know yourself really well, so spend some time with your characters.
Other Pixar Rules have implored us to experiment – to try something other than the obvious and to not always go with the first thing we think of and the same goes for deciding how your character reacts. Their behaviour can appear bizarre or outlandish, as long as it fits with what the audience has come to expect of them and the world in which the story takes place. This is where the bit about honesty comes in. Be honest with your characters and your audience and they will accept everything you throw at them. Build the world you want your character to live in, make it believable and credible within its own rules. You can then make any decisions you want, sending your characters in any direction, as long as the world is built carefully and with honesty. If you do this well, the audience will willingly suspend disbelief.
Sci-Fi worlds in films like Star Trek, Pacific Rim and Looper are carefully set up by the writer so we are not surprised by the actions of the characters that inhabit them – as long as they are made within the confines of that story world. The writers are honest with their worlds and characters so we have no problem believing them.
If Superman solved his latest dilemma by suddenly travelling through time when this had not been previously set-up through his character development or the world building around him, it is unlikely we would buy it as an honest solution. But if the writer knows his character and goes into that situation understanding what Superman can and would do, we get an honest, acceptable and believable outcome that doesn’t take us out of the story – regardless of how outlandish or fanciful that action might be.
So, in short, build convincing worlds and understand your characters inside out. That way, when your character faces a decision, you know exactly what they would and could do in that situation and will be able to give the audience an honest, credible reaction that they will accept without question regardless of how outlandish it might be in the “real world”.
More proof that stories are characters driven.
How do you get to know your characters?
Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #16 – Raise the Stakes!
Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!
Another, unwritten “rule” of screenwriting and character development is that a character should change during the course of their story. They should learn something on their journey that makes them a different and/or better person. Starting in the status quo of their current lives, something happens that throws them into their new world and makes them reappraise the situation they were in and the beliefs they held.
Taking one of my favourite examples, It’s Wonderful Life, we see George Bailey go through a lot of trials, hankering to get away from Bedford Falls, a place that he has seen as a weight around his neck since childhood. Everything conspires against him in the story, to the point that he reaches a very low point; penniless, hating himself and, sadly, even resenting his own family. Through a mysterious stranger George is given the opportunity to reflect on his life and literally see what the world would have been like without him. He learns a lot about himself, his family and friends, finally realising that he is, in fact, the richest man in Bedford Falls despite thinking he has nothing. His WANT – to leave Bedford Falls and make his fortune is replaced with the realisation of his NEED – to stay in Bedford Falls where he already has everything he will ever need. Although George is an all round good guy, he does undergo some change during the film as he makes this realisation.
But, do characters have to change?
Of course not!
It wouldn’t be a screenwriting “rule” if we didn’t encourage each other to break it. Many would argue, for example, that Ripley doesn’t change at all during Alien – she’s a kick-ass character all the way through. In fact, some characters are more about the change and effect they have on the people around them in the story. Check out Forrest Gump for an example of that.
The reason for posting this is because I recently caught up with Nightcrawler. I enjoyed the film, but I wasn’t “blown away” as I was led to believe I would be. Jake Gyllenhaal does a great job with Louis Bloom, a man of questionable morals who lies, fights and kills to get to the top. Ultimately, I just didn’t really like the character and, at the end of the film felt that he hadn’t learned anything on his journey – he was just as amoral at the end of the film as he was at the start. He may actually have been worse.
However, the film, like Bloom, has a way of getting under your skin in the days after watching it – which was probably the point. The more I thought about it, the more I thought this is more like Forrest Gump than It’s a Wonderful Life. It is more about the effect Bloom has on those around him; most notably TV Exec, Nina and Rick, his ill-fated assistant. Their desire to “get on” are probably matched by Louis’ but their characters are corrupted (further?) by getting involved with Louis and his slightly twisted view on the world. Nina’s slightly dodgy ethics worsen in her desire to get bigger and better videos for her station and Rick’s desire to help and be successful are his downfall when partnered with Louis’ desire to get the “shot” regardless of the cost.
That’s when I started to realise that Nighcrawler wasn’t really Louis’ story – it is Nina’s and Rick’s – as an exploration of the effects of corruption. Louis is like a physical force blowing through the film; an amoral tornado tainting everything it touches.
Like the feeling when you have been up all night, Nightcrawler seeps in unexpectedly, taking you by surprise (much like Louis’ introduction in the film) and, like the announcements on his police scanner, takes you by surprise, just when you think you have figured it out.
Any film that makes me think for more than a few hours after the event is more than worth a look, and I am sure it would stand up to repeated viewing. It certainly grew on me. Definitely recommended as an exploration of character and the perfect example of a protagonist who doesn’t change.
Just because a character doesn’t change, doesn’t mean they can’t be interesting.
Do you think all characters should change?
Thanks for reading and feel free to comment below!