Friday, September 10, 2010

Would a caveman get it?

What does your main character want? And will the eventual audience know and understand their goals?

I think these are two really key questions when it comes to writing a script. Failure to engage with a character, especially when it’s the lead, is often down to fuzzy aims and an unclear set of objectives. Where your main guy or girl starts is important, but so too is where they want to go. Is it interesting or engaging enough for us to want to follow?

I recently saw Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, a film where the main character has a very clear ostensible goal: to win the heart of the apparently unobtainable Ramona. To do this, he must face and defeat her seven evil exes. So far so good. To use Blake Snyder’s barometer, even a caveman would be able to grasp this goal.

BUT – the film reveals near the end (spoiler alert!) that Scott has really had another goal to achieve all along, a goal that Ramona’s affections have formed only part of. He doesn’t realise it at first, but he needs to learn to accept responsibility for his actions and to face up to his own mistakes. And it’s only when this dawns on him that he is able to yank the Sword of Self Respect ( a brilliant name!) out of his chest and claim his own true self. He gets the girl, but he also finds himself, to use horrible therapy speak on a perfectly good movie.

My point is that this is a great example of a goal changing slightly over the course of a film, and being done well. Of course, it helps that both goals are very basic and primal. Can’t we all relate to trying to win someone’s heart and develop our own sense of self?

Problem in scripts tend – IMHO – to start either where someone’s goals aren’t clear (what the hell do they want, anyway?) or where we know what their goal is but it’s just not interesting or involving enough. Either we don’t know, or we don’t care.

Sometimes the not caring can be down to the main character themselves. Maybe they’re not likeable or their predicament is not something we can relate to. When that happens, audience switch off. For example, the Spielberg movie AI. I was unable to relate to the robot child (or indeed anyone else in the film) so their fate didn’t matter too much to me. Plus, the child’s goals weren’t made clear enough and the plot plodded along with no obvious direction. Big dud all round.

What’s funny is that action movies, which tend to suffer critical maulings for their characterisations and dialogue, tend to have very clear, easy to understand goals. It’s always obvious that Steven Seagal/Jason Statham/whoever want to kill all the bad guys and save the hostages/hot girl/entire city. And horror films tend to have the most relatable goal of all – surviving.

Whatever genre you pick, to keep the audience on the edge of their super-large seats, choose a decent, relatable goal and make it clear. Do that, and they’ll be prepared to follow your hero all the way…

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