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

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Setting Up My Character

So last night was my turn again to bring in 25 pages to my writing group.

I brought in the first act of the comedy/fantasy/romance I've been trying to wrestle into shape. I originally wrote it about 5-6 years ago, but though there's a lot of stuff in it I liked a lot, it never really worked. Because I never quite got a handle on the main character.

I did a new opening for group two months ago, and the other writers justifiably tore it apart. So I reworked it substantially, and brought it in again last night for the actors to read.

It went much better in general; I beefed up the humor, and that all worked really well (which is good, because I'm usually not that funny).

But the main character is still a problem.

The issue is this, in broad, non-specific strokes: He's a guy who thinks he's on top of the world, who thinks that he has life figured out, and that it's going to be great.

But then SOMETHING HAPPENS, the hook of the tale, that makes him realize that his life is a lie, and that he needs to change things now.

In the current draft, this SOMETHING happens around page 17. But the problem is that, since until this point the main character is unaware that he has a problem, it makes him a bit passive and uninteresting as a character. At least to the writers last night.

The comments I got basically boiled down to this: either I need to have the SOMETHING happen at page 10, or the character has to be more actively flawed to sustain the action until page 17.

So that's what I'm wrestling with now. The latter might work better, just because it gives more time for setting up everything that needs to get paid off later. But it's a tough juggling act, because I basically need the audience to be aware that this is a guy who needs a wake-up call, but I really don't want him to be aware of it yet.

I'll figure it out. But if you see me looking scattered, it's probably because part of my brain is chewing on it.

Best moment last night came when I was casting. There's an elderly female character in my script who uses a penis euphemism, and I told the stately, elderly actress who I wanted to do it if having a dicey line was going to be a problem; I didn't want to give her dialogue that was going to make her uncomfortable.

She looked me right in the eye and said "Ah, what the fuck".


At 10:12 AM, Blogger Lucy said...

That's so ME in fifty years time.

Don't forget I owe you at least one read Scott, if you want me to tangle with that passive protag I'll gladly give him a kicking?

At 10:40 AM, Blogger marcoguarda said...

Where is your antagonist, if any? I think the beginning should also set him, or it, up.

If he/she's a human antagonist, being the main character lazy (being his traits negative), the antagonist could mirror the main character's behavior from the opposite (positive traits).
And then, as the story develops, the balance shifts toward the main character.

If the antagonist is a force of nature, it could start stirring and rising like a punishment, or something.

I think.

At 11:03 AM, Blogger Tavis said...

If they are having such trouble with it maybe you should cheat-- have the script open with the SOMETHING and then flash back a little and then go forward.

At 11:22 AM, Blogger purple monkey, dishwasher said...

Sounds like the opening of "Stranger Than Fiction". Check it out...if you haven't already.

At 11:37 AM, Blogger adsense said...

Shoot me down in flames if I'm wrong (bearing in mind that I know nothing) but isn't the realisation that he's actually living as lie the entrance to Act III? The point at which he has no option left but to face reality.

The entrance to Act II is going to be more like something going wrong that upsets his perfect life? But he's going to be trying to keep everything on an even keel (which would potentially lead to humour). Act II is all his attempts to cope without really accepting the truth.


(If I'm right you can buy me a drink -- it won't be cheap, I only drink non-alcoholic.)

At 3:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you sure you can't work the older dignified actress and her line into the script?

At 4:44 PM, Blogger Christina said...

But it's a tough juggling act, because I basically need the audience to be aware that this is a guy who needs a wake-up call, but I really don't want him to be aware of it yet.

Doesn't this apply to a lot of scripts? Think of a classic like Tootsie - we know right away the guy is too difficult to work with to be successful. What sustains us until he dons the dress on like page 23 (or 17? can't remember, but I do recall it's late) is a steady stream of comedy from watching him interact with his world unaware of his massive issues.

When he gets the acting job as a woman, it's in response to his manager telling him that no one will hire him. It's - what do some books call it - his false goal. Steve above notes that in a lot of films the character doesn't became aware of his real problem until the 3rd act, which is when he goes after the real goal, fixes his existential problem.

But what do I know? I pay you, not the other way around.

At 6:17 PM, Blogger E.C. Henry said...

Glad to hear your getting feedback on your work, Scott. VERY impressed by your dedictation. 5-6 years ago, and you're still at it. Good for you!

Hope you figure your story problems out. Can't offer any helpfull advice based on that vague description. PLUS, I'm not to crazy about ANYBODY advising too much on any given story, UNTILL they've read the whole thing through. How else would one know what the writer is attempting to set-up and payoff, and what the overall affect the writer is attempting to give an audience.

Always interesting when the pro lowers himself to the level of the pre-pro writer. Thanks for the insight into your life, Scott.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

At 7:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...



Use it.

At 10:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's an idea. You said,

"He's a guy who thinks he's on top of the world, who thinks that he has life figured out, and that it's going to be great."

Well, instead of him "thinking" this and simply "being" at the top, show him attaining this peak and have him tell others (or others compliment him) how he's figured it all out.

In character terms, maybe these are things he tries to prove to others or to himself again and again. Maybe they are in fact true from other people's perspective and maybe he does have wisdom to share. Or maybe his delusions are be obvious to others.

Just a thought.


At 8:12 AM, Anonymous Greymalkin said...

I realize that I'm a nobody and that my opinion probably costs less than a plugged nickel, but here it is anyway:

This idea seems tired and trite.

There's not a whole lot of originality here. "Here's a guy who's on top of the world, who has everything figured out, and it's going to be great...and then he discovers it's all a lie." Is he going to have a Jason Bourne realization that he used to be an assassin? Or is he going to be a retread of every midlife-crisis meltdown movie where Protagonist discovers that his loving wife is having an affair, etc. etc.?

What if he's just delusional in thinking that everything is going to be all right and it's not. Say instead of being at the apex and falling down, he's on the cliffside going up, and just as he thinks he's going to pull it off and make it, well, he doesn't. And THEN he realizes that it's all bullshit, that's he's just been wasting his time, and that the whole thing about "Don't Worry, Be Happy" is just fucking crap.

I'll posit a guess that the gist is Protag is at the top of the world, loses his way, then finds that the REAL path to enlightenment is over here, he struggles, perseveres, then achieves, and in the end looks over and finds that the new status quo is just as good or even better than what he had before, even if the chicks aren't as slutty hot and the pay isn't as good.

But if Protag is one of US to begin with, a struggler, a fighter, with an indomitable spirit that gets BROKEN (like it happens to us) and he has to find ANOTHER way and ends up on a peak that is as good as or even better than he was originally shooting for, well that's a character we can relate to, someone we can root for. He (or she) is us, and we learn from them.

That's my tuppence for ya.

At 12:46 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Well, the reason it seems tired and trite is that I'm only giving the broad strokes; I'm leaving out important things like the fantasy hook, the original twist, the offbeat romantic subplot, etc.

Otherwise, thanks all for the feedback. I did some major brainstorming yesterday and this morning (love that 5AM insomnia) and it's coming together.


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