Okay, I’ve just about had it with heroes whose wife/children/best friend/dog has been killed and they want vengeance. I’ve had it with the female protagonist who needs to learn something, most often the notion that there’s more to life than money and/or looking good. I’ve had it with the two dumb friends who go on a road trip and get into hilarious capers that usually involve kidnapping someone by accident (how do you kidnaop someone by accident??). I’ve also had it with the loser who can’t get laid and with the drama character who has a few days before they’re going to kill themselves, so they decide to get their house in order and ask for the forgiveness of various people… And what do you know: realise they have something worth living for.
It’s not that any of the characters I’ve just outlined *can’t* be good. They absolutely can. ANYTHING can work in screenwriting, there is no formula, no specific way to get your script out there, optioned and on cinema screens and in DVD stores. It’s just these characters are a little tired now (how many years has it been since Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon staring at his dead wife’s photo, his finger on the trigger??). Instead of writers dreaming up their own characters and their own character role functions, the ones I’ve outlined at the beginning of this post *can* be used as a fill-the-gaps exercise. This is what bores readers, since they can end up reading the same sort of thing again and again.
Finding a good, memorable character and transplanting them into your script is hard. I struggle constantly with it myself. I have my own favourites from my own work, yet very often people will read my scripts and do the usual, “I don’t feel sufficiently enthusiastic about your work to take it further”, not even mentioning whether they so much as LIKED my characters. WTF? I sweated blood over this! Die, damn you, die! So I get it. Really I do. You write a character you think is amazing and some little fourteen year old reader on WORK EXPERIENCE doesn’t even remember their sodding name, let alone what they actually do in the script. Imbeciles!
The reason good characters are hard to find is varied and not just all about those ones that fill-the gaps getting in the way and making script readers’ view skewed, as they’re often accused. Sometimes a character is better than the structure that surrounds it; I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve thought, “great character, shame about the story.” On the opposite end of the scale, there are those great stories where you can’t remember who was in it. Very different problems, but you still end up writing the same thing at the end of that all-important script report, which is PASS.
But let’s just say your script’s structure is fab for the sake of argument: how can you make a reader appreciate your characterisation?
Stay away from stereotype. It’s said there’s a “grain of truth” in stereotype and there might be languishing somewhere in the depths of assumption and closed mindedness, but staying within the confines of stereotype is not only lazy of the writer and boring to read, it can be offensive. Characterisation of women seems particularly problematic, either because they are 2D (women are only wives and mothers and hos! Woooh!) or because they are nymphos (especially girls who go to convent schools apparently!) and/or THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL. Write a fantastic female character and I for one will be all over it.
Use contrast and comparison. One thing I like about Holby City is the fact many of its characters are the exact opposite of each other in some respects, yet there are shades of grey in-between so this is not entirely obvious: consider Donna, the lazy nympho nurse and Mark, the conscientious, caring nursing consultant. On opposite ends of the scale – until you also consider the fact both are horribly devious at times too.
Make them stand out from one another. So many scripts go overboard on characters. You don’t need that many, honest. And make sure they all GIVE something to the narrative. Else what are they are there for?
Give us surprising character progression. A hero like John McClane who also knits is probably going too far, but the good, flawed hero is something the Greek Dramatists explored a lot and it’s not something I see often in specs. Instead, characters go from bad to good or vice versa in a much more tangible, black and white fashion, rather than exploring a specific area of their personality as a barrier they must overcome. Keanu Reeves’ character in Speed – what his name? I don’t recall. He goes through the motions of the events that happen and yes it was quite exciting, but there was not any really interesting character progression there for me. Whilst I was not terribly keen on The Matrix in comparison then, I did think Neo a far superior character to the one in Speed, for his response to his world literally being turned upside down seemed much more “real”, ironic in such a phenomenalist concept.
Make us understand why they do what they do. I read a fantastic screenplay in which the antagonist, a murderer and rapist, really believed his victims loved him. In his eyes, what he did was not wrong and there was a twisted logic to his actions (but more importantly, the script never sought to excuse his actions as that would have taken this element too far). Because the writer really explored this antagonist’s motivations within HIMSELF however, when he is killed at the end of the screenplay, there was a curious anti-climax; less of a vanquishing of the beast, but a sorrow for the man he *could* have been had he not gone down this depraved path. This was really interesting and even though many years have passed since I read this script, I recall that character’s name and the title of the script, when I haven’t for scripts that I have read more recently.
Stay left of the middle. If you have a hero that wants revenge, give us a reason we haven’t seen before as to why he wants it. This doesn’t mean you have to be completely “out there” to be original, just shift our expectations. This is not as hard as you might think: after all, a reader is most likely expecting to read stereotype et al anyway! ; )
Of course, regardless of what readers think, crap characters can still make it onto our screens. What are the worst examples in recent years, do you think? Over to you…