a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Monday, July 17, 2006

Movie Characters That Aren't As Original As You Think They Are

This is inspired by a post over on Wordplay, where Bill Martell points out that Click, Cars and the Devil Wears Prada are essentially all the same film, in which a workaholic realizes that they need to change their priorities and put friends and family first.

This got me thinking about way-too-overused characters and character arcs that I constantly see. There's nothing more tedious than realizing you are reading a tired riff on the same old bit.

If you've built a script around one of these characters, think about whether you've at least come up with an interesting spin on them, or whether maybe it's time to.

And these characters aren't necessarily wrong to use -- generally, it only becomes glaring when the entire storyline rests on their pat, familiar little problems.

THE WORKAHOLIC. Generally, these characters are always missing their kids' functions, or frustrating wives by missing dinner, or are trying to keep their boss happy by working harder than the younger guy who is after their job. Granted, this is a problem that exists in real life, but too often in the scripts I read, the characters don't even take a step back and do the can-I-work-less, still-support-my-family and be-really-happy test until late in the script, when it conveniently turns out that gee, they weren't all that tied to their workaholic ways anyway.

And of course there's never a scene in which the family and friends realize they should get off the main character's case, because he's in a stage of his career where he has to work hard if he wants to make it.

THE DREAMER. Sort of a version of the workaholic. He's stuck in a job he hates (or, in half of the scripts I read involving teens, his parents want him to go to med school or law school) but he really wants to be in music. Or a writer. Or a dancer. Of course, by the end, he goes for the arts, which his family/parents are often ultimately supportive of, though not for the obvious reasons (that the world has too many damn lawyers anyway).

THE IMMATURE GUY. This is probably the worst offender, because he's everywhere. Almost every comedy I read with a male lead in his 30s, it's about him realizing that he needs to grow up, and a) get a job b) get a life c) commit to the girl, d) all of the above.

It somehow takes the entire story for the character to really come to grips with the fact that they have a problem, despite the fact that it's painfully obvious to everyone else from page one (while, if they ever go to the movies, they constantly see their alter egos getting lives). All of these guys are almost exactly the same, and few writers figure out how to make them charming, funny or inspired enough to compensate. THE 40-YEAR OLD VIRGIN did this story well. FAILURE TO LAUNCH, not so much.

THE NICE GUY WHO LIKES THE HOT CHICK, BUT WINDS UP WITH HIS CUTE FRIEND. Somehow, writers got it indoctrinated into their heads that they had to spread the gospel of why average guys shouldn't chase attractive women, but should instead go for the smart galpal instead. Wise movies, like THE SURE THING, at least pull off the story by having an actual plot going on other than this. It's amazing how many scripts I read where you can assess all the characters that you have met by page 10, and figure out everything that's going to happen, and who is going to wind up with who.

But I've read endless painful tales -- usually teen screenplays, but not only -- that feel they need to re-establish the idea that being attracted to a woman just because she has a pretty face and a nice body isn't the path to happiness. Granted, sex appeal shouldn't be the only reason you are interested in a woman, but the stories really aren't about that; most of the time, they need to make this work by having the object of their affection turn out to be really dumb, or really a bitch.

ATTRACTIVE WOMEN in movies are stock characters as well; if they are likable characters, it is pretty easy to figure out who they are going to be with from minute one (hint, it's the good looking lead, or John Cusack). If they aren't likable, they are bitchy head cheerleaders, horny executives, or the first person to die whenever Jason comes a-calling.

You know what movie I want to see? The movie in which an attractive woman, tired of all the nice, cute guys never hitting on her because they have been brainwashed into thinking that they never have a chance, ties up a screenwriter, and gets him to tell the story with a happy ending for her character. Hopefully while wielding a whip, and wearing leather.

THE RUNNING MAN. He has a piece of information, or he saw something, and now shady forces probably working for the government want him dead before he can learn the truth. Even though inevitably the government puts much more effort into killing all the people he might want to talk to, than simply killing him. Because though he has no answer for people shooting at him point-blank (which fortunately no one ever does), he's great at fleeing out back doors, or fighting off hitmen with household appliances, or getting a piece of information out of a dying guy.

THE WHITE GUY WHO THINKS HE'S BLACK, OR OLD WHITE PEOPLE RAPPING. Next script I read with one of these characters, I'm tracking down the writer while wearing the leather and wielding the whip.


At 9:31 PM, Blogger Dave said...


While I agree with a few of the characters, I have to believe that some of them (the workaholic, dreamer) are not just character types but more of a thematic proof. The stories are saying "don't spend your life at work, if what you love is at home." There are some jobs that people love - but there are far too many that people hate but feel compelled (or are forced) to work many extra hours.

William's post says that he's always had a job he can punch out of; however, there are many jobs that you can't - and not just Hollywood jobs.

Considering that we spend the majority of our time working, it would seem appropriate that many of us would come to the conclusion (especially in these times of corporate greed) that working too hard is counter-productive to our lives.

How else would you portray that?

Similarly, the dreamer character is not so much about a character with a "dream" but about us not letting fear of taking risks keep us from achieving our deepest wishes.

I haven't seen any of the movies, but my impression from the previews is that the general statement made by Bill is a little simplistic.

I've read that Cars is almost a carbon of Doc Hollywood and I don't consider that a film about a workaholic.

The preview of Click shows Sandler saying that the fast forward got stuck and he missed the youth of his children. I'm taking a big leap and say that this story sounds more like learning to appreciate all of life and not just the "good" parts rather than a workaholic.

Bill had a good article in Script mag about characters, but I'll reserve comments about that for my blog :)

At 9:42 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

There are reasons that the characters have resonance, and as characters, they aren't entirely without merit.

The key is that the more you can diverge from the familiar, predictable, one-note story, the better. Just don't make your script only about that character and their story; weave them into the tale in interesting fashion, without making it a one-note character trait that has to carry too much plot weight.

At 4:53 AM, Blogger Random Brandon said...

I think I know a good example of what you mean Scott...
Take a cop thats all muscle, and doesn't really think things through who learns he's being used and must outsmart the bad guys...
A cop who goes completely by the book but learns that sometimes the rules have to be broken to take down the bad guys...
A cop that loves the fame and glory, but learns he has to get his hands dirty to take down the bad guys...
Now put all three cops in the same story against a corrupt police department and you have L.A. Confidential.

At 7:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post!!!!

- Allen

At 11:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I went to high school with a girl who was doing some modelling at that time and she bemoaned the very thing you're talking about. Despite being quite beautiful, absolultely nobody ever asked her out because everyone assumed she was out of their league.

Of course, I actually was out of her league.

At 1:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fantastic post. Well done. Agree with it all.

At 4:49 PM, Blogger Chesher Cat said...

"THE WHITE GUY WHO THINKS HE'S BLACK, OR OLD WHITE PEOPLE RAPPING. Next script I read with one of these characters, I'm tracking down the writer while wearing the leather and wielding the whip."

I'm writing this one as we speak. I can't wait to see you dressed in leather and wielding a whip. Does your leather outfit happen to have buttless chaps?

At 5:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Writers got it indoctrinated into their heads that they had to spread the gospel of why average guys shouldn't chase attractive women"

It's not like there's a bunch of movies where the ugly girl gets the hot guy.

I have to say I agree with Dave. I like the workaholic and the dreamer as a theme in movies. I think it resonates with people's lives where we spend more hours a day with our co-workers than with our family. I think your point, Scott, is that these stereotypes, and the assumptions that come with them, should not be the sole explanation of a character's character. In other words, make your characters three dimensional.

At 11:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can I add one more, one that I absolutely can't stand to see in another movie for the rest of my life?

The thief/gangster/mobster/hitman who vows to go straight, but then has to do one...last...job.

And, for the record, I wouldn't pay ten bucks to see ALLIGATORS IN A HELICOPTER. I would wait to rent it.

At 2:41 PM, Blogger wcmartell said...

I think the problem isn't with RUNNING MAN stories (much of what I write falls into this) but inthe execution of the story. Same with all of the others.

My initial post over on WP was about whether these stories were being selected by folks in Hollywood who indenified with them... over other stories which may be of more interest to the folks who pay $10 to see movies. Though all of us would rather spend more time with those we love, I haven't seen a movie about outsourcing jobs - even though that's a major issue in USA. Albert Brooks made a joke about outsourcing in his last film, but a huge chunk of the population have spent their lives working at jobs that no longer exist in this country... and are now greeters at Walmart or shift managers at Burger King. They are working *more* hours because their pay at the new job(s) is a third of what they used to be paid.

I realize that all of this is depressing stuff - and movies are escapism. But why does it always have to start with a scenario like "guy is overworked by mean boss" when there are other *reasons* out there that may connect with a larger segment of the ticket-buying audience? You still get CLICK, just with Adam Sandler working 2 crappy jobs after his union job goes to South Korea. They never show these people working anyway (Sandler FFs through work, and in PRADA she just gets coffee a lot - we never really see her answering the phones). It's a matter of background - do we see the studio exec's version, or the version I see when I click on CNN or pick up the LA Times?

In a strange way, this goes along with those 40-plus actresses and movies for people who may have some gray in their hair.

- Bill

At 4:19 PM, Blogger Abe Burnett said...

So, Anonymous #2, you're kind of an asshole by trade, aren't you? You bash someone while hiding behind anonymity--wow, that takes some balls. What a loser. If you have something critical to say, do as my single mother friend used to tell her kid, "use your words, anonymous, use your words..." Which, in short, means to be specific. What don't you like about Alligators In A Helicopter? Does it draw all the traffic you wish would wander through your blog? Did you write a shitty script that got bad marks from Scott when you paid him to give you honest coverage? Ah, you poor baby, you. GROW UP!

Personally, Alligators In A Helicopter is my FAVORITE blog; I read it far more than any other--including And I WOULD pay $10, and see it multiple times. So there!

As to the post that I'm commenting on: I thought your insight was very timely and relevant; until reading your post I hadn't considered how generic and frustratingly one-note so many movies are these days. It's like: oh, great, yet ANOTHER movie where the average guy is hunted by the hot babe.

Studios are sinking their own Titanics by all hopping on the same bandwagons; granted, I realize that the studios strengths are in making mass-market entertainment, but that's one thing, it's entirely another for multiple studios to be throwing millions of dollars at the same kinds of movies at the same time. They need to use their muscle to create the blockbusters we all love, but really strive to differentiate what they offer from the other studios.

As writers, we need to strive to 1)ensure our characters have dimension, 2)exercise our creativity to make tired, stock characters serve new, unforseen functions in stories, and 3)write stories that are original and try to avoid the cliches we see at the good ole Cinema too often.

Thanks for the post!


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