Thursday, May 26, 2011

Artsy Character Stuff

A while back, on one of the message boards I frequent, someone accused me of being horribly biased against anything that’s “character driven” or lacks a plot. I didn’t feel the need to address it there, but it did get me thinking. Am I horribly biased?

On reflection, yes. Yes I am.

Keep in mind what bias means. It means someone has an automatic tendency to lean toward or away from something when it comes to judgment. If I have the choice of watching a sitcom or Doctor Who, my personal bias is to watch Doctor Who. If one dish is made with spinach and one with peas, I’ll probably choose the peas. It doesn’t mean Doctor Who beats any sitcom or peas are always better than spinach, but that’s the way I roll.

By the same token, if I have the choice between an overwritten character study where elegantly-defined protagonists do absolutely nothing and a tight story with good characters and an arc... well, I’ll go with option B every time.

So, yes, I’m biased. In fact, if you check the numbers, you’ll find most people are. We like compelling characters, but we also want to see things happen. Check out a list of bestselling books or films or plays. How many of them involve people sitting on their butts for long periods of time? That kind of stuff just doesn’t sell.

Now, keep in mind I’m not the only one saying this. People have been saying it for decades. Probably centuries. There’s a reason so much of Shakespeare’s populist crap survived and most people can’t even name three of his contemporaries. People want to be entertained. Silent film director Marshall Neilan humorously pointed out (about a hundred years ago) that there are two kinds of directors—the ones who make artistic movies and the ones whose movies make money.

Are being popular and making money the only yardsticks of success? Not by a long shot. But they’re the most common ones and the ones most folks go off. If I tell you I wrote a phenomenally successful book, the assumption is not that I made my mom proud, impressed my tenth grade English teacher, or really touched three dedicated readers. “Phenomenally successful” means the book sold a few million copies and I’m writing this next to my pool while Stana Katic rubs my shoulders.

That being said, there are a lot of real-world, character-driven stories that are just fantastic. They’re vastly outnumbered by the bad ones, no doubt about it, but saying all such movies are bad would be just as lazy as the folks who dismiss all genre work as pedestrian and simplistic. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is far more a slice-of-life story than it is a courtroom drama. The film (500) Days of Summer is closer to a character study than a romantic comedy.

And there are, believe it or not, genre books that go this way as well. James P. Hogan wrote a wonderful novel called Inherit the Stars which has almost no action in it at all. About three-fourths of the book is people sitting in offices and laboratories bouncing theories off each other about a body they’ve found on the Moon. Aliens are mentioned in it, but we only see a few skeletons because they’ve been dead for tens of thousands of years. It’s been one of my favorite books since high school.

So, if you want to write quiet little things that lean far more on character then action, here are three tips for making them something people still want to read.

1) Have compelling characters
Somewhere along the line a lot of people got it in their heads that the only way a character can be interesting is if they’re seriously messed up. This became the yardstick for “mature” fiction. By this standard, a good character’s an alcoholic, chain-smoking, spouse-beating, molested-as-a-child part-time convenience store worker with Asperger’s Syndrome. One film I saw had a pedophile as one of the main characters. No hyperbole, this was a confessed, done-prison-time pedophile, who wasn’t really sure if he was reformed or not. He was still thinking it over and debating if he’d done something wrong or not.

While such people probably has a great deal going on under the surface and give actors tons of meaty moments to emote, you do have to wonder how the audience is supposed to relate to these characters. Or how we’re supposed to like them. And why on God’s Earth would we root for such people? “Go, man, go!! You can get your groove back and molest three more children before the end of the film! I have faith in you!!”

If you’re going to make your story all about characters, make it about characters people will actually like. They don’t need to be perfect, by any means, but they also don’t have to be so flawed we wonder why they’re not in prison or an institution. Someone facing an uphill battle is great, but someone facing a sheer cliff is just pointless.

2)Have something happen
This is probably the biggest complaint I have with 99% of such stories and scripts I read. Nothing happens. The week this story covers is indistinguishable from the same week a few million other people have had. Heck, it’s indistinguishable from the same week these characters have had fifty-two times a year. There’s nothing special or noteworthy about it in any way.

Now, nobody has to steal the Declaration of Independence for a story to be interesting. They don’t need to rob a bank or fight off alien invaders or save the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis. But they need to do something. If the characters don’t have a reason to aim a little higher while we’re watching them, then we’re seeing static characters.

Ready for a horrific example? Think of Flashdance. Almost half the movie is Alex’s friends following their dreams and failing miserably. The ice skater who loses her balance and destroys her routine. The comedian whose mind goes blank and leaves him sweaty and panicked in front of an audience of hecklers. But the key thing is they’re at least making an attempt while the main character is too scared to even try. It’s a basic, simple situation we can all relate to, from one side or the other. They’re all doing something, even though none of them are succeeding.

3) Have an arc
Once you’ve got a compelling character and you’ve got something happening, you’ve got to have an arc. By its very nature, an arc implies we end somewhere else. Arcs that end in the same place are called circles, and there’s a reason you haven’t heard of well-structured character circles. You’ve heard of people running in circles, though, haven’t you? And it’s never a good thing...

The whole point of a story is to get from A to B. If there’s only going to be A, that’s just a plot point. Plot points can be fascinating, but they also tend to sit on the page if they’re all alone with nothing backing them up. Just as something needs to happen in the observed life of your character, something needs to change.
The previously mentioned (500) Days of Summer is about a guy falling for a girl, dating her, and then getting dumped by her. And he grows up a bit because of it. Inherit the Stars is about a group of scientists learning some revolutionary facts about the Earth and the solar system. He Was A Quiet Man is about the office loser who decides to shoot up his office but becomes a hero when someone else beats him to it and he shoots them instead.

And there you have it. Three simple tips to having a character-driven story that still makes audiences cheer. Because cheering audiences pay better.

Next time...

Honestly, I don’t know what I’m going to rant about next time. Does anyone have a topic they’d like to see addressed? Some sticky issue or recurring problem they’ve been having? I’ll try my best to address them, if so.

If not, I’ll probably just find something else to be negative about.

Until then, go write.

5 comments:

Sebastián Lalaurette said...

"One film I saw had a pedophile as one of the main characters. No hyperbole, this was a confessed, done-prison-time pedophile, who wasn’t really sure if he was reformed or not. He was still thinking it over and debating if he’d done something wrong or not. (...) you do have to wonder how the audience is supposed to relate to these characters. Or how we’re supposed to like them. And why on God’s Earth would we root for such people?"

I bet you're talking about "The woodsman" with Kevin Bacon. In my humble opinion, the film did an extraordinary job with the character, and I felt rooting for him... for him to achieve sanity, of course, and dominate his sick impulses. The narrative is tense, at times nearly heartstopping (the girl in the bus), and I would say this film is an exception to what you're arguing here, rather than a confirmation.

(And if you weren't talking about "The woodsman", go see it now.)

Virtual Stranger said...

Actually, I'm not talking about The Woodsman, which I also thought was pretty darn impressive. It's not an exception, it's a perfect example of a character-driven, indie-type film which completely nails all three of these points.

No, I'm talking about a much more recent film. But I shall be polite and let it remain anonymous. ;)

Sebastián Lalaurette said...

Ah, alright. To clarify, I meant that it was an exception to the rule that character-driven stories tend to have messed-up characters as a substitute for interesting personalities, and that it is difficult to root for such characters. It was a compliment to the film. :)

Virtual Stranger said...

No worries. That's what I thought you meant. ;)

SCRIPTMONK!!! said...

I think it's amusing if these critics literally attacked you for having a bias against "anything that’s “character driven” or lacks a plot." Because anyone with with a brain in their head WOULD dislike anything that "lacks a plot." Anything that completely lacks a plot does not even qualify as a story. Every movie has plot. Anyone entertained by a movie that lacks a plot will also be entertained by phonebooks and 9 hours of vacation slides.

Plus there is the fact that a "character-driven" story cannot exist without sufficient plot, since without plot, a character arc cannot occur. Characters receive the motivation to change only through the influence of outside story events- in other words, the plot.

I really hate the labels "plot-driven" and "character-driven" anyway. They are BS buzz words with no defined meaning, usually used by people who are trying to sound like they know more than they do. There needs to be a better way to catagorize story types- so we can at least talk about them without feeling like idiots.