We all know *that* saying: characters are what they DO, not what they SAY. But what does it mean?
Characters all need to have a REASON to physically be in your script. It’s no good writing someone in who is witty, vibrant or whatever, yet has no purpose. No matter how great a character is *is*, if they have no motivation or role function, they’re going to stick out like a sore thumb – and not for a good reason.
As unfashionable as it is to say this, plot CAN exist without good characters, as long as they all have a purpose and your protagonist has a definable need/goal. Check out any 80s/90s action film with the likes of Jean Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal in. Do we care about his emotional journey? Of course we don’t! We want him to open a can of whup-ass and karate kick a few incredibly 2D bad guys to death, thank you very much.
Most Hollywood films these days appear to pay lip service to the *idea* of character, giving us the barest minimum, investing heavily in plot. Anyone who watched Predators last week knows the characterisation of the NEW characters makes the Arnie version seem like Tolstoy. Television is known to make use of stereotype to make its point quickly, too: women in professional positions? They’re all ball-breakers/bitches. Male cops are bent or saviours. Young mothers live in tower blocks and all have tattoos and piercings. Young black and hispanic men are all gang members but turn their lives around somehow and become youth workers or even the chief of police. You get my drift.
So no matter HOW GREAT your character is, if they have no specific motivation or role function, then the plot meanders and doesn’t go very far. And guess what: the reader gets bored/confused. Yes, there have been films that are more like plays and nothing much happens and it’s all very cerebral, blah-de-blah. Occasionally a completely BONKERS film like The Fifth Element turns up – I don’t think Besson even TRIED to *really* hang that together – but the characters of Corbin Dallas and LeeLou pretty much carried it off. But these films are the exceptions, not the rule.
9/10? Your spec needs character + plot = to get read all the way through. That’s just the way it is.
And yes, it’s the same with television as it is with films. We NEED plot. It’s what audiences want — they do not go to the cinema, crack open the DVD box or turn on the telly to watch something “about a guy/woman”… They want to see a film or drama:
“About a guy/woman WHO [does something and this happens]”
– You need a goodie and a baddie
– We need a clear, obvious situation they find themselves in
– The goodie needs to want or do something – and the baddie wants to stop them
THOSE are the very basics. Anything else can be built on top of that. Yet too often these basics are what’s missing.
Very often scribes want to keep us guessing in some way – and mystery is good. But we need to know WHO and WHAT we’re dealing with FIRST in order to appreciate it is a mystery… Don’t make us wait all the through to know that and put all the exposition at the BACK of your script. Mystery only works if we know who the protagonist is, what they’re up against first and WHY. This doesn’t mean you put all the exposition in the FRONT of the script either, but mete it out, dose by dose over the course of the narrative.
Check out any police procedural or crime feature and how they do it. The protagonist or team investigating starts off knowing NOTHING and throughout the course of the narrative goal posts are changed, red herrings introduced and blind alleys presented. Yet still, by the end of the piece, we usually know exactly who did it and why — and it’s hardly ever someone we’ve not seen before the bit they get arrested in the resolution.
– Goal/Counter goal
Yes, yes… We all KNOW this. Yet it’s so often NOT on the page.
So… What are you going to do about it?
Hmm. I suspect that thinking about character in reductive terms like "goodie" and "baddie" is only likely to lead to the the sort of shit two-dimensional Van Damme films you talk about.
Who are the goodie and baddie in Juno? Sideways? Citizen Kane? Annie Hall? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? A Christmas Carol? Groundhog Day? Mary Poppins? Tootsie?
Absolutely agree Michael — like I say in the post, *anything* can be built on top of those "reductive terms", which will inevitably mean fashioning different stuff entirely — like the protagonist who is their own worst enemy or those faced with antagonistic forces that are not easy to pin down.
But very often I'm reading scripts where characters are just a sea of names. I have no idea what they're doing or why — or even who is the most *important*.
You gave me a couple of new examples for my thoughts on what I call "advanced characterisation" (ie. Beyond "goodies and baddies") so ta for that… New post # 9 if you click on the "screenplay tips series" label.