Surviving the screenwriting food chain, one revision at a time

Archive for the ‘Character/World’ Category

Rescue Me

How unlikeable characters make the best protagonist…

This is a very exciting week for me. The final installment into my favorite saga will be presented to the world. I am not talking about the Harry Potter movie that will have little girls running and screaming for the theaters, but rather the final season of Rescue Me, a show that would likely make little girls also run screaming. Unlike Harry Potter, whose moral compass never strays, Rescue Me’s protagonist Tommy Gavin throws the middle finger to morality as he bangs back a shot of vodka, before things really get interesting. He is a foul mouthed, egotistic, womanizing, violent, abrasive alcoholic, and I love him. He is one of many in a long list of anti-heros who have snatched up the hearts of audiences and ran with them. From Bill Munny to Hank Moody, these hugely defected characters have made for some of the most fascinating protagonists.

The Ultimate Badass: Has he really played any "likable" protagonist?

We learn from the get go that in order to write a script, or even a bedtime story for that matter, you have to have a likable protagonist. This, clearly is not the case. These anti-heros not only win our sympathy, but let’s face it, they’re way more fun to watch. It’s like watching that stupid friend that you have who always get’s himself in trouble. As much as you enjoy laughing as gets yelled at by his parents, you still hope he gets away with it. But the reason that these characters have won our hearts goes much deeper than that.

A major part in film and television’s success is that it provides a fantasy for its viewers, while still offering them something to relate to. What keeps swarms of tweens rushing to the theater (and forkin over the dough), is that recognition of a teenager just like them, doing magical and brave things that they could never. It’s also what kept more mature audiences tuned in to Friends for a decade; the idea of people and friends just like them who lived lovely lives in Manhattan, never had to work, and always got along. Its almost as magical as Hogwarts to be honest.

It is this same principle that makes us so intrigued with these Anti-heros. We recognize that we are flawed, as every one is, and as they certainly are, but they are also doing incredible things. Plus,as far as the female demographic is concerned, no matter what your parents say, girls DO love bad boys. This is a fundamental principle of the anti-hero; they have a substantial redeeming quality. In Tommy Gavin’s case, he saves people from terrifying fires. No matter how devilish he is outside of that inferno, he still drags innocent people to safety by running in to life threatening fires. He also suffers from PTS while mourning the losses of 911, a national tragedy, so he gets brownie points for that as well.  So viewers tune in and realize that everyone has a shot at redemption, something that is nice to think about, as they watch him terrorize everyone around him.

(In this scene Tommy just saw his dead son who he sorta killed… yeah, Id fall off the wagon)

What I think attracts me to these characters, however, is that they make for very complex protagonists with very complicated stories. While everyone who’s ever heard of Harry Potter instantly wants him to defeat Voldermort (sp?,whatever…), even the most loyal fans of shows like Recue Me and Californication, who have rooted for this protagonists for season upon season, still have to question where their sympathy lies from time to time. This makes for interesting themes, conflicts, and plot lines. It also keeps those loyal fans tuning in time and time again, as they subconsciously hope that Hank Moody gets away with statutory rape .

So while “likability” may generate some really successful protagonists, Im going to say screw likability. Give me complex protagonists, with the human tendency to hit on the wrong girl, drink too much, but do it all with the best intentions. Put ’em in a complicated situation and I say you have yourself a story!

We all fall for legs like that...

I’d love to hear who some of your favorite protagonists are (no matter how likable), and what you think makes them so great!


Buddies Know Best

How the buddy relationship can serve your script.

We’re on a mission from God…

Different types of characters have served many different purposes in screenwriting. As a general rule of thumb, any character must serve the protagonist in some purpose or another. Whether it is the antagonist exposing the hero’s weaknesses, or the outsider serving as a source of expositional information, these characters have little significance beyond their duty to the scripts main character.

This makes the buddy dynamic a very fun and interesting strategy in screenwriting. The two buddy characters usually share a common goal, making their independence as characters a bit excessive, but it is the way that they serve each other as independent protagonists that makes this technique worth while. In a buddy film, the audience tends to learn the most about each character from the perspective of the other buddy. We also watch a relationship that is appealing and generally comedic.

This function can spill into genres other than the typical buddy film, when close friends, siblings, or partners in action have such a close relationship that their interactions reveal the most minute character details. This of course makes each character that much more realistic for the audience, and their goals that much more relatable.

In the effort to avoid sounding redundant, Ill avoid the obvious example of Butch and Sundance. So, consider, for example, this scene from The Shawshank Redemption, in which Red’s response to Andy’s opinions act as a means of further exploring these feelings. Without Red, Andy’s explanation of his reliance on “hope” would read as on the nose dialogue, and would seem awkward. It is Red’s insight into this emotional explanation that makes this scene feel so natural.

Such excellent examples of what I’ll call “the buddy insight” work their way into films of all genres. Think of your favorite film and imagine it without the protagonist’s best friend or sidekick. The character would be noticeably flatter and therefor less appealing.

So I encourage you to explore the possibility of a buddy in your own script. Whether it is a true brotherly bond story, or a sappy rom-com, Im confident that a close relationship could bring your character to life if utilized properly.

Your Line on the Horizon

Working with your setting to bring the story to life.

In Syd Feild’s Screenwriter’s Corner, he discusses the potential of using the properties of an action sequence to craft the arch of the scene. I was thinking about this insight while working on my own script’s revision last night, and found that visualizing the setting brought a lot not only to my action sequences, but my story as a whole. Now it may seem obvious that the writer’s job is to know everything in their scene’s location, but thinking about it the way Mr. Feild suggested seems almost backwards and definitely brought a new dimension to my understanding of each scenes dramatic action.

Taking his advice I started thinking about the spacial movement that had to take place amongst scenes, and started placing my character’s motions and dialogue along that timeline. I started paying attention to where the characters would be when they reacted to certain lines, what prop could best compliment their emotional expression, and how the scenery could enhance the mood of the scene, rather than how the scene could work in a specific location.

When it came to my action scene, I could totally visualize how the scene would fit into the movements that had to be made based on the physical space.

I thought about how this technique may have come in handy in one of my all time favorites; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This scene is a great example of how an entire scene is dictated almost entirely by the character’s surroundings, after that its just up to the screenwriter to craft the dialogue in a witty manner and “make the plunge” if you will…

Screenwriting is a trade of building a world within your writing, so I had a bit of fun working backwards and shaping my writing around my world. Give it a shot some time and see how you like it.

A world of its own…

Crafting your animated world through real life recognition:


The most basic of human desires...

Many a times I have been curious about the possibilities of writing an animated feature, targeting the young audiences that have so loyally enjoyed the Disney Pixar and Dreamworks films. The appeal in writing for this kind of film lies in the limitless possibilities of the new worlds explored, as well as the light-hearted tones and themes that drive these popular features. On the surface, the purpose of such films is to provide the young and simple minds of children with an enjoyable and entertaining story.

Upon closer examination, however, these movies deal directly with the issues at hand today in our own society. When crafting a world and characters far different from those with which we are familiar, the screenwriter must do a great deal to make the characters and conflicts relatable to their audience. This task is most commonly achieved by infusing realistic character traits into the imaginary characters and putting them in situations not unfamiliar to our own.

In many cases, an animated feature, which may seem to operate as a comedic escape from our daily issues, is in fact a direct reflection of the problems the screenwriter recognizes within our society. A great example of this lies in the film Wall-E. Wall-E takes a robot that can’t properly communicate in the way we expect, and brings him to life through the use of human emotions and goals. While Wall-E may be a robot who’s “objective” is to collect trash, the audience can recognize his humanity through his expressive mannerisms and his true goals. Like so many other protagonists, Wall-E just wants to overcome loneliness by winning over the heart of a superior female.

More significantly, however, Wall-E serves as a terrific protagonist due to the position he is in to save mankind from the damage we have done to our world and our selves. In a time of global awareness, the theme of cleaning up the world we trashed, and breaking the lack of awareness that comes from technological advances and pure laziness functions as a superb theme of timely heroism. In this way, Wall-E goes beyond being a simple children’s movie by examining so many relatable conflicts and issues within the world we know.

Wall-E does not stand alone in this success. Think back to almost any animated children’s movie, and you will see that no matter how abstract the world and characters, the film deals with issues and goals drawn from our own lifestyle. Whether it be The Lion King’s reflection of greed and betrayal, or Shrek’s focus on societal standards and judgment rooted in physical appearance, it seems that in order to successfully craft a light hearted and enjoyable animated feature, one must first focus on real-life issues of the most serious nature.

We all want the same things...

We all want the same things...

Killing your character

I have this morbid obsession when it comes to screenwriting. In life I believe that you should always defend the ones you love, no matter the cost. In writing, I say fuck ’em. This obsession of mine started in a sophmore creative writing class, when I couldn’t stand my classmates sappy love story, and when asked for suggestions on her very weak ending I bluntly replied that she should have both of them die brutal deaths. While I would never actually hope this on anyone, it eventually turned her bland love story into a decent tragedy. And so my motto was born.

Since this random grumpy workshop way back when, I have noticed the concept applying to more and more aspects of story telling. I was recently found guilty of murder by keyboard when I transformed a cheesy Garden State-y script into a movie about suicide, redemption, and eventuall heroic but tragic demise, and to tell the truth Im much happier with it.

The term works both ways however. One of my fellow screenwriters, whose scripts I’ve always enjoyed, is determined to have his character commit an abortion in the end of his very humorous self discovery script. The decision sparked much debate in class, and proved another aspect of this little theory of mine.

“Killing your character” extends far beyond the literal interpretation. When it comes to screenwriting and film making, it is often the best ideas that don’t last. I’ve had entire script concepts stem from one little scene, but when it came to the revision process the scene just didn’t fit. The same has been true for my short films and other projects. Beautiful shots of setting suns, with the gorgeous couple holding hands as they walk towards the horizon is really great, but if it doesn’t work with the story it needs to get the chop.

I believe at heart all writers are over-emotional romantics, but please folks, when it comes time to turn your great concept into a great script, don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Just make sure that you can argue probable cause when you need to plead your case….

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