Protagonists Should Make Mistakes

For our purposes, a mistake should be taken to mean any action or decision that leads to further negative consequences for the character. Even something that could be seen as an objectively good action (ex: A child feeds a hungry, stray dog) can have additional consequences (The dog follows the child home, and her/his parents do not want a dog in the house.)

Mistakes deepen our understanding of a character. An individual’s choices are informed by their backstory, their priorities, their temperament, and so on. What is important to your character? What blind spots does your character have? When faced with a difficult decision, what’s the mental flow chart they go through to make the call, and how does this differ from the “ideal” path to a solution? When they misstep, what does it show us about their inner workings?

Mistakes create room for further conflict. The only time that a character should be able to potentially come up with the perfect solution to their problems should be close to the end of a story. If they solve everything before then, there’s nowhere else for the story to go. An imperfect/mistaken solution creates the potential for additional conflict/problems/story.

None of this is to say that a writer should force a character to make mistakes. That way leads to the scenario where characters behave like idiots for the convenience of the writer and the plot.

“Write What You Know.”

This is a phrase that gets used frequently when working with beginning writers. It’s important to have your writing come from something that resonates strongly with you. If there isn’t something about what you’re writing that you care deeply about, it will be difficult to put in the time and effort to make it the best it can be.

This is also a phrase that gets misinterpreted by beginning writers. Writing what you know doesn’t mean that you should translate events you have experienced directly to the page and call it a day.

What you know, in this context, is much more vast than most people are willing to give themselves credit for.

You know what has happened to other people, both those you know in real life, and those you know anecdotally. You have emotional knowledge of the way situations have felt, and this can be extrapolated to fit other narratives. Most importantly, you have the ability to learn and expand your knowledge.

Maybe the phrase itself is insufficient to explain its aim. Here’s another attempt:

When writing, start with what you know.

Writer’s block is for people with only one project

A blockage feels like you’ve written yourself into a corner; like there is nowhere to go and all the momentum you were feeling earlier in the story is now crushing down on you oppressively.

It may sound like a zen koan, but sometimes the best way to work through your problems on a script is to stop working on it.

Have something on the back burner, or even a secondary project with its own deadlines. This way, when things get tough, you can take a mental break and go work on something else.

You’re not abandoning your first idea. In taking time away from it, you allow for some distance from the problems that seem insurmountable, and potentially getting inspiration from your other project.

And don’t think that this is an excuse for procrastination. Story problems are simply not something that can be overcome by brute force, but by continuing to exercise your creative muscles in another way, you will be better able to see a solution after you have distanced yourself from the problem.

Buy someone a drink

A few years ago, I attended a Q&A session featuring Paul Schraeder, and he offered a suggestion for a way to prepare yourself before diving into writing a script.

Pick a friend. Maybe two or three friends. Invite them out for a coffee, or to a bar. Somewhere you can talk without a lot of distraction. Let them know that if you can bend their ear for twenty or so minutes, the first round is on you.

Don’t pitch a thumbnail of the idea. Tell the story. Start from the beginning and work towards your end. Try not to paint in too broad of strokes. Get in to the nitty gritty of what you have. Again, tell the story.

Watch your listener. See where their attention shifts and at what points they ask questions. Do they need something clarified because they’re confused? Do they want to know more?

What you’re looking to see is if your story can keep the listener wondering what happens next. There’s a mildly sneaky test for this: Build to a cliffhanger, or some other dramatically tense point, then pause and excuse yourself to the restroom.

If they ask you what happens next when you return, you’re on the right track.

Writing as Sadism

Your characters should suffer.

I know. You love your characters. They’re the beautiful fictional beings whose quirks you know inside and out. They’re your friends, and you wouldn’t want your friends to suffer.

The truth is, your characters want you to do horrible things to them. They would never admit it, because just like real people, they are averse to pain and conflict. But deep down, in the core of their fictional being, they’re aware of something primal about storytelling:

“If I suffer, my audience will feel sympathy for me, and they will become more strongly attached to me.”

Let’s say you have two toddlers going to the zoo. The first is a toddler, who we’ll call Brian, says something funny about the penguins. His father laughs. They go get corndogs, see some more animals, and head home. Bryan sleeps in the car on the drive back.

Now, let’s think about a second toddler. We’ll call him Max. Max is at the zoo with his family, but gets separated when he stops to watch the kangaroos, and his brightly colored child tether suffers from a defect, causing his family not to notice that he’s not following along with the group.

Max looks around and can’t find his family. He sees somebody that almost looks like his mother, but as he walks up to her, she turns around and reveals that she’s someone else. He frantically wanders around, calling out for his parents & his big sister. It starts to get dark, not because it’s getting late, but because storm clouds are rolling in. It rains, soaking Max. He starts to sniffle. Then, lightning and thunder. He’s bawling, alone, and surrounded by strangers who don’t notice him as they run to get cover from the storm.

When I say that you should do horrible things to your characters, that doesn’t mean that happy endings are off the table. Quite the opposite. If Max goes through a compelling enough ordeal, the desire from the audience for him to be swept up by his mother, wrapped in a towel, and given a fudgecicle will be greater.

Much like how we feel pleasure from seeing our friends overcome obstacles, we enjoy watching fictional characters overcome adversity.

Go ahead, be cruel to your characters. Whip them. Beat them. Make them write bad checks.

Do it because you love them.