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Character Role Functions # 1: Male Lead

Music can be a very helpful inspiration to scribes when writing. I have been known to drive my family mad in fact with a particular signature tune, like this one when I was writing Eclipse: I had the song on repeat for weeks, maybe even months. Now, well over a year since I finished, Hub has banned that song from the car, the house — anywhere he’ll hear it, basically.

Very often when I’m reading scripts, characters will sort of “blend together”: writers are often shocked to hear this response from me, especially as they will feel they have tried hard to make their characters”sound different”. For me though, characters are not *just* dialogue and sounding different; they ARE different from each other. They should have very specific wants and needs – sometimes fitting in with the theme of the story, sometimes not, depending on their role – that MAKE THEM and thus push the story forward.

Here are my thoughts then on how characters have role FUNCTIONS that help or hinder the narrative’s drive forward, using music to illustrate my points.

The Romantic. I Feel You – Depeche Mode. Key words: “This is the dawning of our love.” Very often in the scripts I read, males have very few romantic inclinations at all – even in romcoms or actual romances. It seems to be felt romance is something a woman does and strives for, netting in a bloke who perhaps let his guard down at the wrong moment! On the flipside, in specs it seems to be nearly always women who are driven crazy, Glenn Close-style from Fatal Attraction, in horrors and thrillers. What’s interesting then about this song and its words is it could be taken *either* way: depending on your viewpoint, the singer’s romantic – OR THE BIGGEST STALKER IN THE WORLD. It’s a thin line.

The Realist. The Scientist – Coldplay. Key words: “No one said it was easy… No one said it would be so hard.” Yeah, yeah, we all hate Coldplay. Now that’s over with, what’s interesting about this song is it flags up the notion it SHOULDN’T be easy for ANY character in ANY film of whatever genre to get what s/he wants or needs. Yet so often characters in specs don’t have to work that hard to achieve their goal and as a result, we just can’t get on board with their journey. And characters’ lives in specs ARE journeys. Similarly, as a specific role function, the Realist is one of the most under-used characters I see – even in horrors and thrillers. *The One Who Knows They Are Totally Screwed* is a fantastic character for raising tension and creating conflict within the main narrative, even if they aren’t the main antagonist.

The Father. “Cats In The Cradle” – Ugly Kid Joe/Harry Chapin. Key words: “You know I’m gonna be like you”. A character does not have to be an actual father; sometimes he is a father figure instead, but very often the Fathers I read in specs get on either fantastically well with their kids – or they are entirely absent from their lives. But there is a middle ground. Fatherhood – whether symbolic or not – is a minefield every bit as much as Motherhood, yet scribes consistently seem to miss this opportunity. Similarly, parenthood is a bittersweet experience: the many, many ups and downs can be what MAKES and BREAKS a person (hence many parents’ somewhat smug belief those childless people *just don’t get it*), yet there is often a very simple line drawn in the sand between parents and their offspring in specs: they get on or they, um, don’t. What I like about this song then is it shows how complicated these relationships can be.

The Love Rat. Wherever I Lay My Hat, That’s My Home – Paul Young/Marvin Gay. Key words: “Save your tears, ‘cos I’m not worth it, you see”. Whether we laydeez like to admit it or not, we’ve all shed bucketloads of tears over men, often ‘cos of their seeming lack of regard or remorse at the end of a relationship. Perhaps we have even been raised by bitter mothers who have experienced something similar before us, so we’ve come to expect it – yet are still shocked by the reality, especially the fact so many men seem to have no understanding of what they’ve done, so this whole “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” has sprung up to explain it, as if we really ARE from separate planets, which of course is pure nonsense. But that’s the stereotype: sometimes love rats and rogues DO have self knowledge, DO have remorse, but STILL can’t help themselves, ‘cos they’re too screwed up by life to do otherwise – and those, not the *bastards* are the more interesting characters.

The Beholden. Magdalena – Perfect Circle. Key words: “I’d sell my soul, my self esteem, a dollar at a time”. Women are so often VICTIMS in specs – to men, to work, to parents, to life in general, yet how often do we see a man put in their place? Not often. Yet men are screwed over by all these things just as much as women – and if suicide rates in young men in particular are anything to go by, they feel pushed right over the edge by them. In the rock/metal world, men often sing of feeling close to the edge and consumed by these problems, yet there seems little in movie/TV world to reflect this reality. There’s a wealth of material to be mined in this character, yet I see it in specs so infrequently I do have to wonder why.

The Addict. Happiness In Slavery – Nine Inch Nails. Key words: “Slave screams: he knows what he wants.” Again, another wildly under-used character in specs. The man with the addictive personality can destroy the world around him: listen to the stories from people around you, remembering husbands, boyfriends, fathers who failed to “measure up” because they put a vice ahead of real life. Men who gamble their mortgage away. Men who drink their families away. Men who MURDER their families. Yes, women do this too (perhaps not the last one so much), but which has more truth? And how can you use this to create the most conflict in your spec? About four or five years ago I would see The Addict in Ken Loach-style dramas, but recently he’s disappeared altogether, even in that genre. And I think it’s a shame.

The Criminal Mind/ Sadist. The Future – Leonard Cohen. Key words: “When they said, “repent”, I wondered what they meant?” Obviously this character turns up a lot in specs, usually as the antagonist, but he’s often what I would call a “comic book villain”. He will state his intentions to anyone who will listen and usually delight in how evil he is and/or how pathetic everyone else is. Yet bad guys DON’T KNOW they are the bad guys! That’s why I love the words here – the complete bewilderment of the singer is a great reminder of the notion bad guys are always the good guys in their own minds. Of course, the challenge there is finding a way to represent this without being *on the nose*.

Used any of the above in your own work? What other roles have you used/read in specs? Did they appeal to you – or not?

Over to you…

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3 thoughts on “Character Role Functions # 1: Male Lead”

  1. I use the man that is still a child quite a lot. Don't know if that one counts as a type. Or maybe it covers all men because they don't grow up? (dives for cover).

    Oh and have you changed your header or is my memory playing up again.

  2. Re – banner: Yes I have Rach, I put out a call on Twitter and the marvellous Graham Bandage ( made me it. Marvellous, innit?

    Re: MEN – the manchild can indeed be a GREAT character, but again I don't see him often in specs. Another of my faves which is under-used is the "every man" – the ordinary fella who must step up when he meets something/someone extraordinary.

  3. The Kid In The Front Row

    Music plays a big part for me when I'm writing. I'm not sure that recommendations can really work for anyone, because I think it's so personal. But yeah, it's a big part of the process for me.

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