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Archive for the Category "Characters"

Make your characters L.I.E. Aug 15
Bad Santa

More likable?

“(s)he’s not likeable”

Have you ever received a note back on your script telling you that your main character isn’t likable enough? It’s very common.

But what does that really mean? The protagonist isn’t friendly?

Maybe. But it could also mean that the character isn’t multi-dimensional or engaging.

That’s why when you hear “likability” you should think in terms of…

making your characters L.I.E. (Likable, Interesting, Entertaining)

Likable

This is the obvious one. Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! book is so named because many movies have a scene early on where the protagonist does something akin to saving a cat — to show that (s)he’s a good person. The idea here being that you’ll be more likely to get behind such a decent character.

It doesn’t always have to be a heroic or kind-hearted act that makes you root for a character though. Really, likability is about empathy. So depending on the character you’re trying to develop, often times there will be a scene early on where your protagonist is beaten down, taken advantage of, or otherwise disadvantaged in some way.

Or if your protagonist is a jerk, we see what makes them tick. That way even if we can’t relate to their situation, we can certainly understand why they are the way they are and we’ll start to root for them.

Interesting

Is there something intriguing or mysterious about this character? A flaw that can be shown? Something peculiar about the way the character acts or speaks. Blake Snyder used to call this “giving your character a limp and an eye patch.”

It really works though. We like to watch characters that have something interesting going on. Something that shows we’re watching a fully fleshed out individual, with many layers, and not just a mere archetype.

Entertaining

Ideally you want your audience to be smiling when they watch your character. Smiling doesn’t mean that it’s funny necessarily — it just means the character is entertaining in some way.

Is (s)he super smart? Super clueless? Does (s)he intimidate people? Does (s)he flaunt the rules? Figure out what makes your protagonist entertaining, then play that up!

“Likability” just means that the audience likes to watch your character, not that (s)he’s a saint. So don’t forget to make your characters L.I.E.!


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Category: Characters  | 4 Comments
Guru Quote: Lajos Egri Oct 08

The Art of Dramatic Writing“A weak character cannot carry the burden of protracted conflict in a play. He cannot support a play. We are forced, then, to discard such a character as a protagonist. There is no sport if there is no competition; there is no play if there is no conflict. Without counterpoint there is no harmony. The dramatist needs not only characters who are willing to put up a fight for their convictions. He needs characters who have the strength, the stamina, to carry this fight to its logical conclusion.

We may start with a weak man who gathers strength as he goes along; we may start with a strong man who weakens through conflict, but even as he weakens he must have the stamina to bear his humiliation.”

- Lajos Egri, The Art of Dramatic Writing

Reader Question: Passive Protagonist in Being There? Oct 07

Being ThereI’ve written about Passive Protagonists before here, and here. It’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, because it used to be my blind spot.

Recently John B. emailed me the following response to a challenge I posed:

Regarding:
“Can anyone out there think of a recent movie that featured a true passive protagonist — successful or otherwise? Please post below.”

I would argue that “BEING THERE,” one of my favorite movies, is the best example of this I can imagine.

Peter Sellers as Chance Gardener “The Fool Triumphant” is so passive that he barely moves without someone or something else nudging him along and he does not make a conscious decision most of the time, which defines passivity.

Being There

Before I assess whether or not Chance (“Chauncey Gardener”) is a passive protagonist, I have to say that Being There is an amazing movie. If you love great movies, and haven’t seen it, don’t rob yourself of one of the most impressive surprises in movie history. Go rent this one NOW!

The surprise is so profound that it forces you to reevaluate everything you’ve just watched up until that point. I’m not going to tell you when it happens in the movie, but I can guarantee you will not see it coming. It’s simply brilliant.

Now that I’ve hopefully sold you on seeing the movie, stop reading this article (or click the EJECT button). Thar be SPOILERS ahead.

EJECT

Definition of Passive Protagonist

Before I can answer the question, we need to define what a passive protagonist is. To quote from my previous post:

The protagonist is the one pushing the action and pursuing her1 external goal with dogged determination. That’s the hero we want to see (in any genre of movie). She is not merely reacting to things being thrown at her or being pulled along through the adventure.

Chance

Peter Sellers as ChanceSo let’s break it down. Is Chance pushing the action? Said another way — could the main beats of the story have occurred without Chance?

The answer of course is no. Chance pushes the action. He may of course be oblivious to his influence, but nonetheless, he’s the one moving the story forward and changing/inspiring those around him.

But what about his goal? Does he pursue it with dogged determination? Does he even have a goal for that matter?

At the beginning of the movie, his goal is clear. He needs a new place to live. He needs a new life. Much of the joy of watching the movie comes from worrying that his housemates and guests will finally discover that he’s not a brilliant aristocrat, and is instead a simpleton gardener (or is he?).

So is he passive or not?

One does get the impression throughout the movie that Chance is not a willful character. He’s just happy to go with the flow and watch his television. And yet great things continue to happen for him as he rises to incredible heights of success — hobnobbing with titans of industry, entertainment and politics.

Chauncey GardenerGiven the extraordinary ending of the movie, there’s an argument that can be made that Chance was gently pulling the strings of those around him the entire time. Even if that’s not the case, he is able to deftly, if not unwittingly, maneuver in the world he’s found himself in and solidify his place in his new home.

Sure, he gets nudged along, but ultimately he’s the one who makes the key choices and actions in the movie. He chooses to go along with Eve Rand to the home. He makes friends with, and provides peace to, Ben Rand. He impresses the President with his speech. He decides to go on the talk show and wow the audience with his simple truisms.

While there’s a case to be made for him being a passive protagonist based on his demeanor and perhaps his intentions, I think the powerful influence he has on those around him, makes him an active one.

What do you think? Was Chance a passive protagonist?

Any other candidates for a passive protagonist in a mainstream movie?


Need someone to review your screenplay and give you insights that are guaranteed to make it better? Please take a look at my script services.

  1. From here on out, I will always use the female gender variant for pronouns because I’m sick of authors citing efficiency of writing and then invariably opting for the male form.
Category: Characters  | 5 Comments
When Secondary Characters Fall In Love Sep 24

Holding HandsLove. A many-splendored thing.

To add some heart to your script, you decide to create a subplot where two of your secondary characters fall in love. Nothing could be finer, right?

Wrong.

For some reason, I’m seeing a certain misstep lately — in both client spec scripts and in mainstream television shows. Shows that I love! I’m seeing subplots with secondary characters, where all the characters do is… fall in love.

That doesn’t sounds so bad. I don’t get it.

Here’s the deal. If you’re writing a spec script, with one protagonist, that you actually hope to sell, it should have a strong narrative drive. Your main character should be locked into the most important events of her life.

If you cut away from that main throughline to chew up screen time with two secondary characters, it had better be for a reason other than to simply show the two of them falling in love.

I’m not saying that subplots with secondary characters falling in love are a bad thing. Quite the contrary; many great stories have been written with that device. I’m saying that if two secondary characters fall in love, and have their own scenes — the love story needs to either:

  1. have significant implications for the main story, or
  2. have significant implications for the main character, or
  3. be so gripping in nature that it can compete equally with the main story, or
  4. all of the above.

If not, every time you switch to the secondary characters’ love story, the movie will feel like it’s losing momentum or direction (i.e. failing).

An example of a successful love story subplot, with two secondary characters: 17 Again

In this underrated movie, the Mike O’Donnell character (Zac Efron/Matthew Perry) has a best friend Ned who falls in love with sexy Principal Jane.

Their relationship:

  1. has significant implications for the main story, as it facilitates a big third-act party at Ned’s house while he’s away on a date with Jane.
  2. has significant implications for the main character, as it causes additional embarrassment/stress for Mike.
  3. is hilarious, and therefore competes equally well for laughs in this comedy.
  4. encompasses all of my points.

On the other hand…

An example of an unsuccessful love story subplot, with two secondary characters: True Blood (Season 3)

LafayetteIn general, a glut of subplots turned this 5 star show into a 4 star show this past season. Several of the subplots completely diffused the narrative drive of the main story. One in particular was the love story between Lafayette and that nurse dude.

Their relationship:

  1. had no significant implications for the main story.
  2. had no significant implications for the main character.
  3. was boring. Sure, ol’ Lafayette deserved some love, but to waste so much screen time on a bland romance, with a lame-duck conclusion that only tentatively introduced yet another supernatural element, without any real consequence… Really?
  4. encompassed none of my points.

In your spec, do you have two secondary characters chewing up precious pages with a love story? If so, it had better be good. Follow my advice or readers may quickly fall out of love with your script.


Need someone to review your screenplay and give you insights that are guaranteed to make it better? Please take a look at my script services.

Category: Characters, Television  | 4 Comments
5 Big Things To Sweat About May 30

Sweat The Big StuffSweat The Big Stuff

I’m sure you’ve all heard this inspiring set of rules before:

  1. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
  2. It’s all small stuff.

The truth of the matter, however, is that when it comes to screenwriting, that message couldn’t be further from the truth. While the devil may be in the details, your script lives or dies in its broad strokes.

Prom Date

Here’s a quick metaphor to illustrate what I’m trying to say…

STUDENT

Is my prom date’s dress hot or what?

CONCERNED FRIEND

I guess. But dude, your date is a chimp.

STUDENT

Okay now you’re just being rude.

CONCERNED FRIEND

No, I mean your date is literally a chimpanzee. Does your dad work for the circus or something?

STUDENT

The zoo.

CONCERNED FRIEND

Ah.

Awkward silence.

STUDENT

Smokin’ hot dress though, right?

It doesn’t matter how hot your scenes are, if your script is a chimp!

5 Things

Here are five BIG things you should sweat over, long before worrying about things like correct formatting, clever descriptions or upping the tension in a particular scene:

Concept

Concept is probably the most important aspect of your script. If you have a fantastic one, readers/producers will be more likely to forgive minor problems.

When you tell people about your concept, do they ooh and ahh? Do their eyes light up? If it’s a comedy, do they smile or laugh? Do they immediately connect with the material. Make sure you have a winning concept before you start writing your screenplay.

True story. I once had a woman pitch me the following sole movie concept: “It’s about a black Hollywood producer who has a small dick.” FAIL!

Character Motivations

By the time a reader reaches the second act of your script, he/she should be able to answer at least two fundamental questions. The first one is: “What does the protagonist want?” Make sure the answer to this question is clear and primal.

“My protagonist is just kinda going with the flow at this stage of the script.” FAIL!

Rooting Interest for Your Main Character

The second question a reader should be able to answer by the start of the second act is: “What do I want for the protagonist?” Depending on your story, this may, or may not, be the same thing as what the protagonist wants. But either way, at this stage, the reader should be rooting for your main character(s).

Moreover the reader should have an implicit understanding of where the story is going, and care about that direction.

READER: “I hate the protagonist, so I don’t care if he finds his lost doughnut… not that I would have been at all interested in that anyway.” FAIL!

Overarching Story

Have you provided a solid structure and an engaging plot?

Do cool or powerful things happen in your story? Have you fulfilled the promise of the premise? Have you executed a story that maximizes the potential of the concept? Thrilled the audience? Shown them something they’ve never seen before, or in a way they’ve never seen it?

“Yes, it’s a global apocalypse movie, but we learn what happens through first person accounts only. It takes place entirely in one interview room.” FAIL!

Theme

Is your movie about something? The movies that leave an impact on us are the ones that teach us something, or, at the very least, have something to say that will resonate with audiences. Something specific.

“The theme is danger.” FAIL!

***

Do you have all of these bases covered in your script? Or are you taking a chimp in a pretty dress to prom?

Any “big stuff” you would add to the list? Please post in the comments section.


Need someone to review your screenplay? Please take a look at my script services.

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