Searching For A Hero

Instead of thinking of the creation of a protagonist as grafting together different characteristics into some sort of Frankenstein’s monster, consider the act as refining a search string with additional terms. As an example, we’ll use Dr. Alan Grant in Jurassic Park:

  • A man – 3,700,000,000 results
  • An unmarried man – 2,050,000,000 results
  • An unmarried man AND paleontologist – 15,075 results
  • An unmarried man AND paleontologist AND doesn’t like kids – 2,482 results
  • An unmarried man AND paleontologist AND doesn’t like kids AND technophobic – 603 results

Specific Doesn’t Always Mean Unique

Creating a specific character isn’t always about creating a character so unique that there is only one result. Not every protagonist is The Chosen One, but every protagonist should feel specifically connected to the story being told.

Going back to a previous post on having elements to a premise that are both unique and relatable, if a character is too specific; too much of an individual, they’ll be difficult for the audience to connect with. A combination of relatable characteristics can mesh together into a character that is specific enough to give the appearance of being a unique individual.

It’s actions that take a specific character and make them unique. Using the (completely arbitrary) numbers above, there may be 603 men like Dr. Alan Grant, but he’s the only one of them in this situation.

Character Traits Anchor Plot Points & Conflicts

The situations Dr. Grant finds himself in reflect the specifics of his character traits.

Paleontologist? He needs to survive on an island full of living dinosaurs. Technophobic? He’s wary of the science used to breed these dinosaurs, and he needs to cope with the failures of technology that put everyone in danger. Unmarried relationship status? There’s tension between himself and Dr. Malcolm when Malcolm flirts with Dr. Sattler. Uncomfortable with kids? He’s thrown into a situation where he needs to protect the lives and sanity of two children.

The character and the story reflect one another in specific ways and offer opportunities for increasing the story’s tension. Consider how different the story would be if Dr. Grant liked children. He might have sat in the same jeep as Tim and Lex during the tour of the park. He would have kept them calm during the T-Rex attack and prevented them from attracting its attention with the flashlight. Everything that follows after that would have happened differently, and their trek through the middle of the park would never have happened.

Making Sure The Audience Is In On It

Building the character and understanding their traits is the first step, but how do you make sure that the audience understands these things so they can see how the conflict ties in with the character?

There are many ways to hide exposition, and Jurassic Park has an excellent example with its introduction of Dr. Grant. The crew of the dig gathers around to look at a new piece of technology to give them a picture of a fossilized skeleton still underground. Dr. Grant inadvertently touches the monitor and shorts out the image. He’s confused about what happened, but continues to describe the velociraptor until he’s interrupted by a child who thinks it looks harmless, like a big chicken. Dr. Grant then goes through a lengthy, grotesque description of the raptor, scaring the bejeesus out of the kid.

There’s conflict: Dr. Grant vs. technology with the monitor, then Dr. Grant vs. the child. This scene gives us not only the two aspects of Grant’s personality he’ll have to overcome during the story, but also introduces the velociraptor, which will be one of the primary antagonists of the film.

With that one scene, the audience knows much of what to expect from this character. When further scenes play off these characteristics, the viewer can try to anticipate what will happen, increasing their involvement with the story.

Spoilers

Spoilers, even unintentional ones, can have an effect on your viewing of a film. To talk about this, I’m going to have to discuss specific spoilers about The Avengers. This is your warning.

Like a very large number of other people last week, I saw The Avengers with some knowledge of the future development schedule for Marvel’s film universe. Specifically, I knew that Iron Man 3 was well underway.

Which means that for me, and anybody else with that knowledge, when Tony Stark grabs hold of a nuclear warhead and redirects it toward the invading alien mothership, I knew he wouldn’t be killed or lost forever on the other side of a wormhole. The tension was diminished.

So why did the moment still work? Because Tony Stark didn’t know he was going to survive.

Potentially sacrificing himself to save New York and stop the invasion was the culmination of Tony’s arc. The conflict between Captain America and Iron Man centered on whether or not Stark would be willing to sacrifice himself if there were no other option. Tony was always looking for the way to “cut the wire” and not have to make that choice, but when the missile was launched, no such option presented itself.

Instead of the tension of wondering if he would survive, we get the tension of whether or not the plan would work combined with seeing the completed evolution of Tony as an Avenger. While we didn’t believe that he would die, we saw that he was willing to make a heroic sacrifice.

Now, not everybody is working on The Avengers or Iron Man 3 script. If you’re writing a spec script, there’s a near zero chance that anybody will find spoilers to it on the internet. But there’s still something to take from The Avengers and the nature of spoilers and suspense.

Say you’re writing a script about World War II. We know how that ends. What we don’t know is how it ends for your characters, and how the climactic moments of their story reflect upon the journey we’ve watched them take. The life or death stakes that characters deal with in that story are there as a way of forcing them to deal with their personal conflicts.

In most romantic comedies, the couple gets together in the end. The tension lies in watching how they get to that point. The Avengers is the same way. We have little doubt that the team will repel the alien threat and go on to their respective sequels. The core question is how will they learn to work together to achieve this?

Success or failure is just the box score. How characters come to succeed or fail is what holds our attention.

Present Tense Exposition

In every story, the characters and their world existed before the film began. Some of the elements of their history are necessary pieces of information for understanding what happens between Fade In and Fade Out. Much like how characters meeting each other is an opportunity to stage a revealing conflict, the presentation of expository information has its own opportunities and challenges.

Here are a few examples of how others took their backstory and wove it in to the present tense action of the film.

The Adventures of Tintin

After becoming suspicious about the model ship that he’s just purchased, and how several people were eager to try and take it off his hands, Tintin heads to the library to read up on the history of The Unicorn, the ship the model was based on. While a person reading aloud from a book doesn’t sound like a thrilling set piece, there are a few tactics used to add tension and conflict to the moment.

There’s a small beat before the scene in the library where we see an unknown figure watching Tintin and Snowy through a pair of binoculars. Those binoculars watch them leave and retrain on the model of the Unicorn in Tintin’s apartment. This plants questions in the audience’s mind: Who was watching him? What’s going to happen to this model? It also reinforces the earlier question, why is this model ship so important? These bits of unresolved tension carry us into the scene in the library.

While in the library, Tintin’s research reveals that The Unicorn was a ship that sank with a secret cargo. This isn’t a direct conflict within the scene, it posits another question to the audience: What was the secret cargo? This mystery is useful in how it suggests a connection to the questions already asked of the audience. Could the people interested in the model of the ship be interested in this secret cargo? How is the model connected to that?

The scene cuts from Tintin reading to an overhead shot of a man skulking about in the shadows, watching him. We’re reminded that Tintin is under surveillance. The surveillance beats sandwich the new information, helping to the audience to interpret that these things are related, and that while we just spent a little over a minute listening to somebody read aloud from a book, that information is crucial to what’s coming next.

Children of Men

Taking place in a future with some key differences from our present, this film has some serious world building to do. Over the opening credits, the audience is treated to audio from the intro to a TV news broadcast. The patter sounds familiar, helping to bridge the gap between our world and the imagined future of the film, but the stories that they discuss are dystopian and extreme. Then we come to the kicker: A reporter informing us that “Baby Diego,” a man in his twenties who was the youngest person on the planet, has just died.

This is a straight infodump, but it’s effective because the information it gives is layered and shocking. In that one moment, we’ve learned that there are no new people being born, and that the chaos teased at the beginning is directly connected to the conditions arising from a world without birth.

Alright. So we have our information. We’re done, right? Not by a long shot.

In walks Theo, trying to push through the the people watching the news report in a coffee shop to get his order. It’s a small conflict, but it helps to define his character. A world is in shambles, human biology has been halted, people are mourning the death of a celebrity symbolizing the planetary crisis, and Theo just wants everybody out of his way so he can have his morning coffee.

The Departed

Billy Costigan is called in to be vetted for undercover work. This could be a cut and dry scene discussing resumé items, but what elevates it and disguises the exposition is the dialogue of Det. Dignam.

Dignam doesn’t sit behind a desk. He doesn’t stop moving for more than a few seconds at a time. And every time he reveals something of Billy’s backstory as part of the interview process, he does it in the form of a verbal attack. For example, “You have different accents? You did, you fuckin’ snake. You were like different people!” or “You got 1400 on your SATs. You’re an astronaut, not a statie.”

Yes, we’re being directly told the backstory, but there’s a clear motivation for it being delivered this way: It’s a test. Dignam is trying to figure out if this guy is cut out for the job. Costigan’s going to have to stand up under even more intense scrutiny and pressure if he’s going to go undercover, and Dignam’s interrogation is the a hint of how personal history and characters trying to get a read on each other is going to be crucial to the rest of the film.

If you can read this, you are not writing

You are reading this sentence instead of writing one of your own.

You are continuing to read despite the suggestion that your time would be better served writing.

This is not a blog post meant to offer a piece of advice or a strategy. This is an alarm clock. Every time you move on to the next sentence instead of closing your browser to work on your writing, you’re hitting the snooze button.

Wake up.

Nothing is clear or obvious

Words like “clearly” and “obviously” in action and description lines work against script clarity. They are an assumption that something should be understood without specifying how it could be.

Take these examples:

  • The room is obviously a pediatric dentist’s office.
  • Margaret is obviously interested in what Dana is saying.
  • This exchange clearly took place in his imagination.

These are all missed opportunities.

In the first, the slug line can take care of informing the reader of what location we’re in, making the sentence wasted text. Additionally, details about the room could help to show what makes it a pediatric dentist’s office, and those items could be used to strengthen our understanding of how being in this location relates to the larger plot. If our protagonist is 12 1/2 years old, sitting in a waiting room looking at a poster of a child with a big grin and missing teeth while Nick Jr. plays in the background, that suggests a conflict.

Or in the second, how it’s essentially a sentence telling us that Margaret is listening to Dana. The details of how we would understand she’s interested in the conversation while watching the finished film could be used in place. Margaret’s body language or her end of the conversation would be stronger ways to help the reader intuit Margaret’s interest.

The third is something of a double whammy. It’s in past tense, which is a different red flag in that this particular instance sends the reader looking back over what they just read instead of continuing to move their eye down the page. But, for the purposes of looking at the use of “clearly,” this line misses out on the chance to establish the cues and rhythms that would come from a story where fantasy and imagination play a part. There are any number of ways to set a dream or fantasy sequence apart from reality (consider the vast difference between how Scrubs and Inception handle this concept).

We are not inside your head. Everything the reader understands about your story comes from the page. You must convey, specifically, every element you want to make sure that we understand.