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Friday, July 18, 2008

Script Mistakes # 2: Don't Care Characters

SPOILERS: ALIEN TRILOGY
Some characters are indelible. They leave their mark, as if they've been seared on to our brains lasting even though S/FX, technology, props or sets may end up looking dated.

Sometimes it's because of their integrity and survival instinct, like Ripley. Other times it's because their self denial reminds us of what WE should really be doing too, like Miles in Sideways. Sometimes it's because they're a classic hero, protecting the innocent like John Book in Witness; other times it's because they are both protagonist AND antagonist like Riddick. Often a memorable character is memorable because they are what we wish we *could* be, but aren't. And bully for them: after all, movie-world is a lot simpler than real life. Or at least it should be, even when your plot throws up complicated questions. Yes I can explain.

Even a convoluted plot should be simple at its heart: easy to explain, in other words. If you end up saying, "Well there's this guy... And then he does this... So he ends up doing that... So next he does this..." and the person you're telling this information to is saying "Why?... But a moment ago... Yeah, but what for?...But what about the..?" every five minutes, chances are your main character hasn't got an identifiable goal. Instead it's become lost amongst a sea of OTHER STUFF. Before you know it, you have a sequence of seemingly random events, meandering from one thing to another, which might seem cool in isolation, yet just don't add up as whole. The end result? You just don't care about the character.

Think of the characters you really love. What was it about them that attracted you to them? Was it *just* the explosions, love scenes, clever dialogue? I bet you it wasn't. They may have done cool, sexy, clever or funny things, but the reason you love them is because you can relate to them.

I will hopefully never do battle with an acid-dripping alien and its mates, but I love Ripley because she is a contradiction of traditional male and female characteristics. She is not only fighting for her own survival, she is protective of her crew mates, working out how to save them, when she discovers the danger they're in. She acts on gut instinct like we might expect a woman to, but fights with her fists like a man (less usual for a woman). What's more, she's a woman in a man's world, even in the future - yet she can hold her own AND act upon her own maternal instincts in saving first Jones and then Newt. Talk about having your cake and eating it! This girl's got it all, she's male AND female - by the third movie, she even looks like a man and what do you know, she dies and takes the beast with her, the ultimate in destruction, a contrast to her more female stance of flight/fight in the first two movies.

Yet even if you don't agree and don't want to read any contradictory use of gender stereotype into Ripley's character, Ripley is still layered. She's vulnerable and strong. She's sarcastic, suspicious, pigheaded; but also loyal, resourceful, protective. She's a natural leader, she can think on her feet. But she's also naturally afraid of dying: she screams and cries like we imagine we would when faced with almost certain (not to mention horrifying) death.

In many of the specs I see, characters are too perfect or too flawed: there seems little in-between. I've read lots of specs about wife-beating, drunkards or self-obsessed floozies who discover the error of their ways and I've read plenty of characters who don't seem to have any issues at all: it appears to be all or nothing. But why can't our characters be layered and complicated, like people in real life?

We judge people in real life by what they do - or don't do. We don't require that much information about them either to do this. Having met someone a few times, observed them for the space of an hour total, we really believe we know quite a bit about a person. We may make guesses about their education, their belief systems, their family dynamic etc - and sometimes these guesses will be wrong, sometimes right. It's unlikely however that you make SERIOUS errors that lead to serious complications - instead you will have wrangles, problems, arguments: maybe a friendship or relationship will end because of it, but it's not usual that that error of judgement will lead to death or jail for example.

Your characters CAN have those layers that make them complicated without the need to delve into hardcore backstory that will obfuscate your plot. The way a character RESPONDS to situations tells us so much about them. The fact that Ripley returns for Jones tells us she will stop at nothing to get SOMEONE off that ship - but the fact she abandons him in the cat basket when the alien blocks the corridor to the shuttle tells us she values her life more than an animal's. This helps us believe her motivation earlier too: she WILL do what she can but she will NOT sacrifice herself - and of course that is why she does not go down to the cargo hold immediately when she hears Parker and Lambert's shouts and screams over the intercom system when they're in there with the monster.

We have an added bonus with films too: audiences CAN'T get it wrong, if we put the RIGHT things in. We can get people to relate to our characters if we want to; we can make people care about them and what they stand for. And we can do all of that without the need for acres of expositional dialogue or reels and reels of irrelevant subplot. We use the character's response to what we throw at them in the plot to give us an insight of how they are feeling - and show us what your character is feeling and suddenly your audience is emotionally involved with your character and willing to invest in their journey.

Over to you - favourite characters of all time? Why?

9 comments:

Carlo Conda said...

Who can't love The Office's characters? Even people like Michael Scott have a big heart. If he didn't suck at thinking and talking, he'd be a really nice guy. I mean, take the business school episode for instance. He sounded like an idiot in the lecture hall, but back at the office he said what he believes simply and clearly - "Our business is people, and people will never go out of business."
And Ryan is shocked to hear something smart come out of Michael's mouth, or at least something come out of his mouth that wasn't filtered through his conscious thinking.

A breath of fresh air compared to the UK version of Michael Scott.

Elinor said...

Ripley's a fave. It's so rare to see female characters with any degree of complexity. They tend to be ciphers. I liked Jason Isaac's character in The State Within because he was contradictory.

My husband was in New York on business once. He was just about to go into a client's gallery on Madison Avenue when he spotted a very tall woman walking a very tiny poodle. She looked somehow familiar so my husband said good morning to her and she smiled and said good morning back. It wasn't till she'd passed by that he realised it was Sigourney Weaver.

Lucy said...

Contradictions in characters can work really well - but I think writers are afraid of writing them in case they are accused of not knowing their character well enough and making it up as they go along. The thing is, you can make a case for characters doing ANYTHING as long as you plant the seed of it first... Ripley is both vulnerable AND strong ALL THE WAY THROUGH. It's when a character does one thing one way all the way through UNTIL THEY NEED TO DO IT THAT WAY AND DON'T. That's what gets on audiences' nerves. I will never forget Maid Marion being represented as kickass in ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES and then she stood screaming on the sidelines as Robin fought the Sheriff. I was just 11 years old but I was OUTRAGED.

But give your piece narrative logic, make your contradictory characters consistent and you needn't worry about being told you're making it up as you go along.

Elinor said...

Ah yes, somehow writers lose their nerve with kickass female characters. I was watching Treasure Planet with my son which had Captain Amelia (voiced by Emma Thompson) driving the plot equally only to have some accident and just lie about waiting for the male characters to sort everything out. Bit annoying really.

h said...

though not with Buffy, elinor. she was a kickass character with superhuman strength but very human flaws and weaknesses, which is why she was great.

Elinor said...

Yes, must watch Buffy.

DavidM said...

Probably not worth mentioning the obvious, but the character of warrent officer Ripley was written as a male charcter. Sig mentioned she would like to play the character and Ridley Scott thought 'why not?'. I don't think the script was changed as a result.
Anyway, it was something of a happy accident that Ripley became a fem-icon.

Anyway, in answer to the q: Bad Santa.

Lucy said...

Yes, I read somewhere - apparently Weaver was originally up for the role of Lambert, but conceived her as a wisecracker rather than the hysteric Veronica Cartwright played her as - BOTH of which apparently Scott wasn't sure of until he thought that they could be contrasts of each other, with Weaver in the protag's role. But of course myth follows movies, plays, even bands and songs around so we can't really be sure how true any of that is.

If it is all true however I would imagine some changes to the script would have been needed - but then there are always last minute rewrites.

Rach said...

Favourite character of all time? Just one? OK. If it is really just one then Withnail. He is completely selfish, self-centred, immoral, manipulative, cowardly, arrogant....

A whole package of everything that should make you hate him but he is also vulnerable, pathetic, lonely, scared and he knows he'll never succeed so you love him.