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How Much Is Enough? Part One

Since I’m mega-chocka, now seems a good time to re-visit a few posts from the old blog – especially since AOL are removing it from October 31st, 08!! I’ll publish part 2 of this article tomorrow since it still gets lots of hits via The List of Wonder, but if you think any others deserve saving, go take a look and let me know which ones. Hurry – we only have 9 days before it disappears!
How many characters should your average screenplay have? That’s a tough one. Actors’ credits can seem deceptively large on produced movies. But that’s just it – it’s a deceptive list. No movie should have loads of characters, they should have the illusion of loads of characters (if that’s the effect the writer or director wants to achieve).

Back to basics: you need an antagonist and a protagonist – a goodie and a baddie, in effect. From this, you can make things more complicated: perhaps you want a protagonist who is also an antagonist; perhaps you want to present the idea of a doppelganger, in that your antagonist and protagonist are different people with the same ideals on opposite sides – whether that’s the law, morality, religion or anything else.

This all might sound a bit obvious, but many writers are surprised when I write in their coverage that I was unsure who the protagonist or the antagonist were. Remember, what’s obvious in a writer’s brain is not always obvious to the reader. (I’m not immune in this either. My first four drafts of one of my specs had no obvious protagonist as I’d spent so much time on the antagonist, whom I secretly preferred, since I had spent more time on him).

So that’s two.

Many people, of which I am one, say eight is the magic number when it comes to good characterisation. ALIEN is the most obvious example of this: there are seven members of the Nostromo and all have very defined character role functions, from comic relief (Parker and Brett), the gung-ho warrior (Kane), the damsel in distress (Lambert), the villain (Ash), right through to an inflated sense of responsibility (Dallas and Ripley). Of course, we have eight characters when the beast is added to the mix.

There was a Renny Harlin film called MINDHUNTERS that echoed Alien’s characterisation in this fashion, almost to a tee. It did not have a theatrical release in the UK as far as I’m aware, as one day it turned up out of the blue in the DVD store with one of the best taglines I’ve seen in a while:

For seven elite profilers, tracking a serial killer is a process of elimination. Their own.

Not only are we treated to a “siege-like” situation in that all seven were trapped on an FBI training ground on an island (all avenues of escape blocked, just as “In Space No one Can Hear You Scream” – where could the crew of The Nostromo have gone??), each character had a specific function that was not only brought out via the narrative, it actually formed part of it: in other words, the serial killer (one of the seven, naturally), used the characters’ quirks and foibles against them in order to kill them. This is by no means a radical idea, however it was a neat and logical device that in my view, delivered a very watchable (if not ground-breaking) movie.

So that’s eight (sometimes seven), of which two should be the protagonist and antagonist.

However, let’s go back to that notion of the BIG list of actors. This is something I’m not awfully keen on, as I’m probably too lazy to keep track of who is who. However, lots of people want to write movies in which there’s a plethora of people – either because it adds to their arena or because they want to kill them (it can be carthartic!), horror and action movies being the most obvious.

With reference to arena and wanting romcoms, thrillers, horrors, action-adventures etc to seem more colourful then, just don’t give these extra characters too much space, as they’re not real characters. This might sound odd, but think of it in this way – these extra people are peripheral, there to add to the protagonist’s journey.

A good example of this would be RED EYE. The screenwriter does not bother to reference any character other than those involved in the main action. All other characters are simply known in the credits list by what they do – how they add to the narrative, in fact. For example, when our heroine stabs our villain in the throat with a pen in order to escape, she steals it from a boy on the plane who is simply known in the credits as BOY WITH PEN. As an audience we hear this boy speak a couple of times and we know he hates his brother, but there is a crucial difference between his characterisation and the heroine’s or villain’s: his doesn’t add to the story, he adds to the situation in that he hates the person sitting next to him just as much as our heroine hates the villain. End of. This is what makes him peripheral; we don’t need his entire history, who he is in relation to anyone else, not even his name.

As for having lots of characters and wanting to cull them, the answer is a simple one:

Do it as soon as you can.

Alot of action-adventures or horrors I get begin with a big number of people being threatened. This is a good starting point. However, what differentiates the newer writers from the more experienced is the number of characters still present in the middle of the script and at the end: the former tend to have too many. By this, I mean families and groups of friends who fall victim to slasher killers or monsters down holes are still intact; army squadrons still have the majority of their recruits; more people than not survive natural disasters or massacres in banks, offices, schools or whatever.

Let’s have a look at the Alien movies again. ALIENS is vastly different from the first movie in that it has many, many more characters in the first instance – a whole troup of marines, in fact. It’s a nice contrast, but it is an illusion. Let’s examine the evidence.

Who is important in this movie? Well, Ripley of course. Then there’s the evil Burke. Then wimpy Lietutenant Gorman follows in a secondary role. These are outlined from the start as “important”. Then we meet the marines. Though there are loads of them, we see Hicks, Hudson and Vasquez in the most prominent positions from the start, as is the Sergeant, Apone and android Bishop. Then they go to the planet and find Newt.

But wait a minute! That’s nine. You said eight, right?

Right. Apone is one of the first marines killed in the alien nest. This is a really old trick: setting someone up in a secondary role whom the audience will expect to see on screen for a long time, then killing them. It’s a great device because though it is an “oldy but goody”, the first time an audience watches there’s no way of knowing a) if it’ll be employed or b) if it is, on whom. So, the only survivors of those marines who go into the nest are Hudson, Hicks and Vasquez. So what are all the other marines’ narrative function? To die. If your characters are supposed to die then, do it ASAP! Aliens did it by the end of the first act. Isolate your main characters, make them realise the chips are down and odds are against them – this increases drama.

But we still have eight human characters – in the other movie, the beast made eight. We still have nine.

Right again. Except this time, one of those characters is a child. All the adult characters, even a synthetic one like Bishop, perform vital functions in their own rights. Hudson is the damsel in distress, Vasquez is the gung-ho warrior, Hicks has an inflated sense of responsibility (as does Ripley, of course). Burke takes Ash’s place as the villain, Gorman has a new role as an incompetent in which he must redeem himself, mirroring Bishop’s as a saviour (though he’s prejudiced against but crucially “forgives” Ripley). The beasts of course are the main threat and antagonists of the piece, just like the lone creature was in the first film.

Well, durr… What is Newt?!

Newt is less of a character and more of a plot device. Ripley fights to survive this time not for herself, but for her lost daughter on Earth as well as the notion of innocence in Newt’s name: “My mommy said there were no monsters, no real ones, but there are, aren’t there?” Newt is less of a character in her own right than a device that gives Ripley’s character new meaning. This means, yet again, we are brought back to eight characters: two in primary roles, the rest in secondary.

What do you think? Any examples of movies with a “million characters” you can think of that work? And what of ensemble casts? Hmmm, intriguing… Over to you!

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4 thoughts on “How Much Is Enough? Part One”

  1. I liked it too Chris – it just didn’t really offer up anything particularly NEW in my humble opinion ; ) That said, there were some pretty good murders – particularly liked that one with the dry ice, didn’t actually see that one coming.

  2. Yeah, it’s not perfect – I was just excited I’m not the only person who’s seen it! I think it has a really promising first 30 minutes then ends up the same as everything else. But I like the fact that Jonny Lee Miller and LL Cool J have a really brutal fight scene – something i never expected to see in a film.

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