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Screenplay Tips # 9: Advanced Characterisation

So, in the post about Character and Plot, I posted about the importance of having a protagonist with a definable goal and an antagonist with a need to get in the way of that goal. As mentioned in the post, those are the VERY basics – but all too often missing in the spec pile. If a reader hasn’t a clue who to root for, their interest isn’t going to be hooked; if their interest isn’t hooked — well, you know what happens. Applying the very basics then helps a writer understand where they could be potentially going wrong, especially with clarity issues when it comes to plot. Mina Zaher aka DreamsGrafter described this notion to me the other day as “pressing the reset button”, which I think is an excellent way of putting it.

But as with anything in this scriptwriting malarkey, the notion of goodies vs. baddies is not just *it*. As appealing as it is to have two characters blatantly up against each other and slugging it out (literally or metaphorically), sometimes the type of story you’re telling or the format (especially in TV) does not always warrant it. Here are my thoughts on what makes advanced character.

The protagonist is their own antagonist. The character who is their own worst enemy is always a treat to see, but inevitably an extremely hard sell. Miles in SIDEWAYS sabotages himself constantly, whether it’s (not) kissing Maya or ringing up his ex drunk; he’s a liar too — lying even to himself: he tells his friend on the phone he’s stuck in traffic, when the reality is he’s HUNGOVER, he wasn’t just “wine tasting”, he was getting PISSED the night before. However, it’s important to remember Miles can’t *just* be on his own… He will feel self-indulgent and annoying. Contrasted against the carefree, irresponsible and downright cad Jack however, Miles suddenly seems a lot more reasonable. Also, having to “sort Jack out” (or at least get him back to his fiancee) gives Miles a sense of purpose – so whilst Jack is not the antagonist per se, he offers a force Miles must go up against, making Miles a more active character himself, whom we can empathise with more instead of reckoning he’s a plain sad loser.

The protagonist is their own antagonist # 2. This bubble seems to have burst a little in recent years, but the idea of the protagonist BEING the antagonist, especially a murderer (what I call, “The Killer Is Me” stories — if any of you are Alice in Chains fans?) is really a bit of a ruse. After all, in order to present the protagonist AS the antagonist, the scribe must create an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT character, otherwise we will SEE the protagonist performing both roles in the produced movie and thus the intrigue is lost — what would the point have been in seeing Ed Norton as his character in FIGHT CLUB and Tyler Durden?? No point, really – which is why Brad Pitt was cast. So really, we’re back in almost “goodie vs. baddie” territory and away from the slick characterisation of Miles IMHO.

Theme as antagonist. Sometimes there is no “actual” physcial antagonist in a piece – instead, its theme is the antagonistic force the protagonist must reckon with. An excellent example of this is Charlie and The Chocolate Factory (old version starring Gene Wilder), where the children must overcome GREED in order to get Willy Wonka’s Factory. The children are constantly invited to BE greedy throughout and those that fall, are despatched. Even Charlie *almost* succumbs when faced with the uber-cool fizzy pop and Wonka’s disappointment and hurt is obvious, so Charlie must redeem himself. In the John August version, I found Wonka much more creepy and less child-like; as a result I found him more of a traditional antagonist that Charlie is *made* to impress in order to “get” the factory.

Dual protagonists. A character device that seems to turn up once in a blue moon in movies – and when it does, it’s inevitably done well, making us perhaps believe it’s easier than it really is. When I first watched INDEPENDENCE DAY I was approximately fifteen years old and immediately struck by the fact Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith share almost the same amount of screen-time. In the 90s the “lone hero” in the likes of Keanu and Arnie was big news and I felt very confused, until I realised something: whilst the two characters had different journeys to get to the underground government safe place, they had the same GOAL: getting to to their loved ones. Once they had found their loved ones, their goal switched: DEFEAT THE ALIENS (and arguably, save their loved ones from them) — and they did this together, too. Whilst Independence Day might be full of uber-American norms and values with some horrendous stereotypes (The British troops – “I say, the Americans have only gone and bloody done it!”), the dual protagonists were written well for the most part – and certainly provided the plot with some interesting manoevres that kept the masses happy, without a musclebound “lone hero”. Quite a feat in retrospect. Dual protagonists should not be confused with Partners, seen mostly in crime drama on TV – Dempsey and Makepeace; Rosemary & Thyme; Miami Vice; Starsky & Hutch; Dalziell & Pacoe etc etc, where I would argue one character always eclipses the other, even when they appear on screen together, even if only slightly. If we consider a drama series like ASHES TO ASHES for example here, though Alex Drake was supposed to be our protagonist, it was always *really* the Gene Hunt show, even to the point the resolution was HIS, not Alex’s at the end of the series. When it comes to television, I think the viewing public always vote their preferences early on and this ends up getting written in, if only subconsciously by the showrunners – television seems more participatory like that.

The Late Protagonist (in film). Generally speaking, these days we START with the protagonist, literally on page 1, usually even the first LINE of scene description. After all, WITNESS was donkey’s years’ ago now. If you watched PREDATORS, you’ll know we literally start, falling through the sky with our protagonist. It’s what modern audiences want: we have decided in recent years, like crocodiles and ducklings, to imprint on the first character we see as our protagonist – and can get very narked if it isn’t that person, ie. “Why start with him, if we’re supposed to be following this other guy???” I’d venture that most of the time, it is a good idea to start with the protagonist, especially in spec writing – it’s the “norm” at the moment and writing follows fashion like anything else. However, if you have a good reason NOT to start with the protagonist, then make it a really COMPELLING reason, make us not care it’s not the protagonist, divert our attentions well.

The Late Protagonist (in TV). There’s a certain amount of leverage when it comes to television, usually in the form of the prologue. Cops n’ Docs do it best: we START with a victim or patient dying/collapsing… Then the team come and investigate. The protagonist – or more crucially, the LEADER – doesn’t always have to come out right away and TV audiences seem able to accept this pretty well. Having said that, I would always counsel caution to those spec writers who DON’T have their protagonist/leader of the team arrive within the first 5 pages at least. Rarely have I seen a REALLY late protagonist/leader arrive (eg. after page 6), as it feels as if we’re “waiting” for the story to kick off.

The Ensemble Cast. When it comes to television OR film, the ensemble cast is never as big as the average spec writer seems to think. I’m often treated to what I call a Mer De Noms or “sea of names” – characters are introduced… and introduced… and introduced! I usually end up looking at approximately 13-15 names, though I have read scripts with even more. End of the day, the average story in a spec, whether 60 OR 90 pages, simply can’t support this many *important* characters. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the evidence:

A) Films Ensemble Casts. The usual fare has a protagonist and antagonist with up to three *important* secondaries each that HELP or HINDER their respective causes, right? Well it’s pretty much the same in ensemble cast films – there is still a protagonist and antagonist, it’s just the “gap” between the secondaries and those “first” two is much smaller or tighter than in a more “traditional” film. This might be because of the mission itself or because there is a designated leader, it doesn’t really matter: *someone* is always in charge. Consider SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, which won The Screen Actors’ Guild award for “best ensemble cast“. Surprised? After all, it’s really Jamal’s story, right? Except loads of other characters – and versions of Jamal at various ages – lead the action too, especially the brother Said. But that’s just it: there’s always one character who is *top*.

B) Television ensemble casts. Consider TV favourites TORCHWOOD and HUSTLE (when they first came out):

Torchwood: Captain Jack, Gwen, Ianto, Owen, Tosh. Not part of the direct team, but often part of episodes – Rhys (Gwen’s boyfriend) and Martha Jones (“visiting ally”)

Hustle: Mickey Briggs, Danny Blue, Albert, Stacey, Ash. Not part of team directly, but often part of episodes – Eddie The Bartender (“friend”)

These are the CORE ELEMENTS of the episodes if you like – though not all characters will appear in every episode, there is a good chance most of them will.

On top of these core elements is the ANTAGONIST OF THE WEEK – which more often than not refers to the “story of the week”, the part of the show that needs to be resolved within the hour. In Torchwood that antagonist will be an alien, ghost or supernatural force of some kind – once it was even one of its own old team members back from the dead, Susie. In Hustle it will more often than not be the “mark” – whoever it is they are grifting that week, though occasionally there are ructions within the team itself, like the constant challenging for the top spot by Danny Blue against Mickey Briggs.

The Large Cast. OF COURSE it’s possible to have a large cast; not all films feature ONLY 6-8 important characters. But 9/10 I think the idea of LOADS OF CHARACTERS is essentially an illusion. One example I hear again and again is the idea ALIENS has “loads and loads of characters”. to some degree, scribes are right; before the characters go into the alien nest, there are indeed lots of marines. But nearly all of them die/get cocooned by the end of that sequence, leaving – guess what: a protagonist (Ripley); an antagonist (Burke); plus the important secondaries Gorman, Hudson, Hicks, Vasquez, Newt. Then there’s the android Bishop and the pilot and her crewman still alive (though those latter two are despatched almost immediately). So in real terms, there are just EIGHT characters once the conflict really kicks in. It seems eight is the magic number in film.

The main issues then with both the TV specs and feature scripts I see? They not only have TOO MANY characters, the scribes in question spend so long introducing them, the reader ends up “waiting” for the story to BEGIN. Character and story – the situation they find themselves in – should be introduced hand-in-hand.
Can you think of any other instances of advanced characterisation?

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3 thoughts on “Screenplay Tips # 9: Advanced Characterisation”

  1. I found loads of information. Especially on great characterization. You did a super job putting this article together. Thank you.

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