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Archive for the Category "Characters"

A Perfect Getaway May 26

Don’t worry — NO SPOILERS!

A Perfect GetawaySince watching A Perfect Getaway (written and directed by David Twohy) a few weeks back, I’ve been itching to write about it. This film actually managed to pull off something that many of my screenwriting friends and clients have been trying to pull off themselves…

It’s quite possible that you, yourself, may have thought about doing this certain daring something, at one point or another, in one of your scripts.

Something that to my knowledge had never been done before.

So what is this something?

Well unfortunately I can’t tell you that. That would ruin the best part of the movie.

On IMDB, A Perfect Getaway scores a respectable 6.5/10 — but really, if you’re a screenwriter, you’re probably going to enjoy it more than mainstream audiences. After all, you’ll be able to appreciate what was accomplished and the finer strokes needed to accomplish it.

Not only that, but one of the main characters is a screenwriter. And, right there in the movie, we get a lot of insider banter about the mechanics of writing a thriller. In fact the movie plays off of these various screenwriting conventions.

If you enjoy tense thrillers, hot bodies and tropical locations, I highly recommend checking this one out. Don’t let someone else ruin the surprise for you. As a screenwriter, or as a movie afficionado, you’ll really appreciate what Twohy was able to pull off. It’s one for the ages.

If you already know what it is I’m talking about, and know of any other movie in the history of cinema that’s done what this movie’s done, please send me an email and let me know.


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Quick Screenwriting Tip: Don’t Sweat the Backstory May 08

Quick Screenwriting Tip

Don’t get hung up on writing character backstories. What’s important is knowing how your character will react to situations right now.

We all react differently to trauma and events. For example, someone who grows up in an abusive household may become an abuser themselves, become a crusader for the abused, or just carry on unaffected and lead a normal life.

Backstories are therefore irrelevant for the most part. What matters in your screenplay is how your characters react to things at this moment in their lives.

The only time a backstory will be important is when an aspect of your character’s past will be brought up, or depicted, in the movie — and will have a direct bearing on the plot or another character.

A Simple Rule

If you know what your character would say and do in any situation, you’re ready to start writing the dialogue and actions for your character.

Reader Question: Passive Protagonists? Apr 21

Officer Hoyt - A passive protagonist?A reader asks about Passive Protagonists:

I was reading on your site and was wondering what your thoughts were on “passive protagonists” who get drug into hairy situations like Officer Hoyt in Training Day. I am writing a movie where the guy gets involved in a situation and has no choice but to continue on kind of like Officer Hoyt. Is it possible to make a good movie with a reactive protagonist like this?, because that is exactly what I am trying to do.

 
Let’s break the question down into two parts:

Part 1: Thoughts on “Passive” Protagonists like Officer Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) in Training Day

First things first. What is a passive protagonist?

A passive protagonist is a main character that displays some or all of these traits:

  • has no strong desire
  • doesn’t make decisions
  • doesn’t pursue a goal
  • reactive, instead of active, as a rule
  • allows someone else to dictate their fate

You get the idea.

Are any of those traits, ones that you would respect, like or enjoy in a friend, business partner, lover, person you want to hang around with, etc.? Of course not. That’s why readers/audiences don’t embrace that type of character either.

A Common Mistake

It’s extremely common for beginning writers to craft screenplays with passive protagonists. One of the reasons why many screenwriters (including myself) have fallen victim to this trap, is that on first glance, many beloved movie characters seem to be passive.

In Star Wars, for instance, Luke Skywalker:

  1. hangs out on the family farm
  2. doesn’t protect is his aunt and uncle
  3. gets dragged on a mission by Obi Wan
  4. is put in his place by Han Solo
  5. is given help by Obi Wan to save the day

But let’s take a closer look. Luke actually:

  1. yearns to join the rebel alliance, but decides to help his family on the farm for now. He’s also proactive in finding his missing droid, which leads him to Obi Wan.
  2. races to save his aunt and uncle as soon as he figures out they’re in danger
  3. makes the choice to go on the adventure with Obi Wan
  4. comes up with the plan to save the Princess, takes action, and convinces Han to help him
  5. makes the decision to listen to Obi Wan’s advice, and in doing so saves the day

It turns out, Luke is actually a very active and willful character, determining his own fate.

Officer Hoyt

If we look at Training Day‘s Officer Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) using that same lens, he’s actually not a passive protagonist.

Officer Hoyt:

  • has made the choice to work for crazy Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) to advance his career
  • is passionate and excited about that decision
  • makes the choice to take the hit off that pipe
  • takes action when he sees two guys raping a girl in an alley
  • makes the choice not to take any money from the murdered cop
  • goes after Alonzo on his turf

See I mean? Officer Hoyt is the one making the major decisions that determine his fate in the movie, even though at first glance it may appear that he’s getting dragged along for the ride.

Part 2: Can a protagonist be reactive?

Sure they can. In fact, most protagonists are reactive — for at least ONE key moment in the story. Whether you refer to it as the Call to Action, Call to Adventure, Catalyst, Inciting Incident, Opportunty… typically this is an event that happens to the protagonist.

It’s one of only three places1 where the protagonist can appear to be somewhat reactive or passive. But overall, your protagonist must be a “willful character” for readers/audiences to embrace her.

It’s okay for your protagonist to be forced into a hairy situation at the outset. Just make sure your protagonist quickly begins to take action, or makes the critical decisions from that point on.

That’s really the secret to great screenwriting — coming up with situations where your protagonist is forced to make difficult decisions.

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


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  1. For more information, please see my previous article on passive protagonists
Category: Characters  | 6 Comments
What’s in a name? Mar 21

Brent + Hildred?That Wily Shakespeare

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet makes the argument:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Bollocks to that!

If the play had instead been called Brent and Hildred, or Addison and Payton, or any other combination, I’m not sure it would even have survived for us to study in high school.

A name is part of the package, not separate from it. A great name can make a character, or person, more special. Why do you think Frances Gumm changed her name to Judy Garland, or Mark Vincent changed his name to Vin Diesel?

Name Choice

In screenplays, you only have a small amount of space to introduce your characters. Ensuring they have the perfect names can immediately:

  • give the reader a heads-up as to what your characters are all about
  • help a reader keep track of numerous characters
  • suggest a character’s station or status in life
  • enhance a character’s personality and identity
  • make your main characters stand out from the pack

The Name Game

And why do well-chosen names make characters pop? Because that’s the way it works in real life. There’s a power in an aptronym — a name aptly suited to its owner.

  • Of course Megan’s last name is Fox.
  • Of course Usain’s last name is Bolt (world record holder for the 100m and 200m sprint)
  • Of course Tiger’s last name is Woods (these days his name has a double connotation).

The other night I saw a commercial for a show called “High Society” on the CW network. It’s a reality show about Manhattan socialites and their less than upper crust behavior.

The main celebutante is a woman by the name of Tinsley Mortimer. Tinsley Mortimer! Seriously, could she be anything other than a socialite?

Final Thoughts

Here’s a great quote by George Axelrod (The Seven Year ItchBreakfast at Tiffany’s, The Manchurian Candidate) on the subject of character names:

Someone said to me recently, “Computers are wonderful. You can just push a button and change a character’s name.” Change a character’s name! In my opinion, you’ve got to go to court and throw the whole script out if you have to change a character’s name. The name is part of his identity.

H/T to this Go Into The Story post for the quote.

Speaking of Go Into The Story, Scott Myers (I love that guy’s blog!) has this terrific article on character names that I highly recommend reading. In addition to discussing the importance of appropriate character names, he lists some of the pitfalls to watch out for.

The moral of the story: make your names count.

What are some of your favorite character names, or appropriately named people?


Want me to personally read your script and let you know if it’s ready to go out? Please take a look at my professional script services.

Category: Characters  | 13 Comments
The Usual Suspects Protagonist Feb 25

Dean Or Verbal?Initial Business

Okay, first — if you haven’t seen The Usual Suspects yet:

1) Punch yourself in the gut, because you deserve it.

2) Stop reading this article now — thar be spoilers… and this is one movie you do not want to spoil. [insert diabolical laughter here]

All right, now that that’s out of the way… I had the craziest conversation at my weekly screenwriters’ group meeting last night. One of our members was plotting a new thriller and was using The Usual Suspects as one of her story models. Possibly a risky move, but so far so good.

She was talking about how her main character is like Dean Keaton (played by Gabriel Byrne). That’s fine, but then she offhandedly referred to Dean Keaton as the protagonist of The Usual Suspects.

And then things really got weird.

Another member of the group agreed with her! And she has her Master’s Degree in Screenwriting from USC!

After my brain stopped exploding, I started going over the movie, and the criteria for a protagonist, in my head. I needed to remember why I believed it was all about Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey).

Verbal Kint — Protagonist?

Let’s look at the evidence for Verbal Kint as the protagonist of the movie:

He’s the one telling us the story of what happened — so it’s his story, and we’re seeing it from his point of view (or the point of view that he wants us to see it from).

He’s the central character. Verbal is the only character present in both timelines (the past chain of events starting with the line-up, and the current interrogation by Agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) — and connects the two together.

He changes the most. In the flashback tale, he goes from being a petty criminal to being an equal member of the gang of hardened crooks. In the interrogation story, he goes from being a wimpy guy trying to act tough, to a broken man who knows he’s just betrayed Keyser Soze, to… well, Keyser Soze, super villain.

He’s the one we’re rooting for. We learn at the beginning of the movie that Verbal (“a cripple”) is the only character from the group who survived, therefore we sympathize with him and are really rooting for him to make it out of this whole experience. If the other usual suspects had simply escaped, then a good case could be made for having a stronger rooting interest for Dean Keaton — the reformed baddie who’s found love.

He’s the one driving the plot forward. Verbal’s the one who convinces Dean Keaton to be part of the group. He’s the one who saves the day in the parking garage by killing the man in the car. And ultimately, he’s the one spinning the lies of the tale — which is tantamount to creating the plot itself.

Conclusion

Maybe brilliant writing is to blame for my group members’ belief that Dean Keaton is the protagonist. After all, there were enough key moments to make Agent Kujan believe that Dean Keaton was in fact the mastermind behind it all.

So Keyser Soze not only worked his magic on Agent Kujan, but also on my writing group buddies! However, in my opinion, Verbal Kint is the true protagonist.

In the end though, it only matters from an academic point of view who the protagonist is. The movie still kicks butt regardless.

But it’s always a worthwhile exercise to determine the protagonists (and antagonists) in movies so we can form a better understanding of what works, what doesn’t work and why. We can then apply that wisdom to our own scripts.

What’s your take? Who’s the protagonist of The Usual Suspects? Verbal Kint or Dean Keaton or both?

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Category: Characters  | 18 Comments