ALLIGATORS IN A HELICOPTER

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

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Boring Main Characters

So I just read a vampire script in which the vampire was really a very dull, passive character, who we really weren't made to care about at all; he wasn't sympathetic, he wasn't really evil. He just was, and he didn't do all that much along the way.

I guess maybe the writers were going for a banality-of-evil kind of thing, but it just didn't work.

It got me thinking, though -- are there any good examples of movies like this that work even though the main character is sort of a bland hole in the center of the script? Or does this so violate how to tell an involving story that it's the kiss of death?

Discuss --

26 Comments:

At 10:23 AM, Blogger anthuswilliams said...

Forrest Gump is about as passive as you can get, but that movie still works.

 
At 10:42 AM, Blogger peter said...

Some key words Scott used in describing this vampire character:

"passive character" "wasn't sympathetic" "just was" "didn't do all that much..."

Re: Gump, it's been years since I saw it, but I seem to remember that the audience was "sympathetic" to him and he did "do a lot" (his enire story was a journey).

Re: Scott's question, a passive character that doesn't do much, not made to care about and so on... Kiss of death--

Story is character/character is story... so, if the Vampire is as you describe, guess what? There's no story there...

 
At 10:46 AM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

Luke Skywalker is fairly passive. Obi Wan and Han Solo are far more active. Luke is pretty much a soldier following orders... Not 100% of the time, but he's certainly not the driving force of the story.

And there are always exceptions to every story/character convention that are also excellent stories.

 
At 10:47 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Well Gump is an interesting character, because for a lot of the script he is passive -- he isn't really driving his own life, he's just sort of letting life push him where it will.

Still, yeah, Gump is sympathetic, and the story is interestingly put together.

 
At 10:51 AM, Blogger E.C. Henry said...

"Saving Private Ryan" comes to mind. Tom Hank's character is a snoozer in this show -- in my opinion, yet we're rivited to it by the Word War II action. His exchange with Matt Damon is a breather, BUT all you want see is what's going to happen when the Germans arrive...

I think action/adventure can get away with lacking main characters, as can the horror genre -- especially slashers, which are reknown for bubbleheaded, no-name teenagers getting offed one-by-one.

In the case of horror. A lot of the time the monster is the attractor. "Cloverfield" comes to mind, which I just got arround to watchin a couple weeks ago. In the case of action/adventure the mission matters FAR MORE than the characters. Same can be said about sci-fi -- sometimes.

Sounds like the script you were reading, Scott, was predicated on the success of the vampire, OR I'm feeling you wrong? Was this author able to create a UNIQUE horror experience? Like the way "28 Days Later" REVOLUTIONALIZED how "zombie movies" are precieved. What I'm getting at is, I believe, any horror movie NEEDS a unique hook that differentiates itself from what has proceeded it, and that may or may not be predicated on the success of its main character. So what, in your opinion, what was this author's attempt at "unique" approach?

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

 
At 10:55 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

The problem was it that it wasn't a horror movie. It was just sort of a drama, about a vampire living in England, who drinks blood to stay young, though tonally it's all over the place -- some dark humor here, some thriller stuff there, even a seance thrown in for absolutely not reason at all.

But the vampire is just sort of a black hole in the center of it all, and not in a good way.

 
At 10:57 AM, Blogger peter said...

Obi Wan had opened the hero's eyes to something greater in himself... And we cared for Luke since he was starting his quest, his journey...

BTW-- we don't have to "sympathize" with a character per se... I mean, who hear sympathizes with Hannibal Lecter?

But we all were captivated by him...

 
At 11:49 AM, Blogger James Patrick Joyce said...

I quite enjoyed "The Man Who Wasn't There". And the main character's lack of presence or involvement in his own life was the core of the movie.

 
At 12:51 PM, Blogger E.C. Henry said...

Scott,

Playing script doctor from afar, I think dude or dudette who wrote this vampire script, MAY be able to exploit the modern-day vampire living in England thing. There MIGHT be a hook in that. Maybe the author should go for England's version of "Twillight."

Ratchet up how a vampire would mix in with the freaks in England, late night clubs, exc. Then maybe mix in the police element with a touch of Sherlock Holmes... Next thing you know -- voila! You've got yourself a movie.

But that takes us back to the original focus of your blog post; sounds like the sucess of this project NEEDS a strong protagonist. What I've suggested is NOT an emphasis on unique setting, but in my opinion that's where this author's needs to be at this point; external world arround protagonist. Locking that down maybe the key to finding an original lead character.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

P.S. If this project turns sucessful, for my contributions all I ask is be brought on set to be Kristen Stewarts kissing practice partner, or preferably Meg Ryan -- though to date she has yet to do a vampire movie. Just sayin', I'm here to help!

- Smiley face from Bonney Lake, WA

 
At 1:49 PM, Blogger Ryan said...

On the "Screenwriting Tips... you hack" blog, one of the tips says,
"‘Foreign’ is not a primary character trait."

The same goes for "Vampire." There's a lot of things like this that can trick a novice writer into thinking a character is more interesting than it really is.

 
At 2:52 PM, Blogger peter said...

"Well Gump is an interesting character, because for a lot of the script he is passive -- he isn't really driving his own life, he's just sort of letting life push him where it will."

If Gump is a type of Odyssey story... could "life" (as in what presents itself in the film as "life") be the antagonist and Gump is reacting to the great challenges that life (antagonist) presents?

Does that still make him "passive"?

 
At 3:00 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Well there are times when Gump just does things because opportunity falls in his lap -- playing football -- or because of a promise, like the shrimp boat thing. Not really antagonism. At one point he runs across the country for the Hell of it. He winds up with a kid he never knew he had.

In terms of dramatic need, he has a few small momentary ones I guess he acts on -- avoiding bullies, saving his friend in the war. But even a lot of his interactions with Jenny are random: she just happens to be in DC, she searches him out late.

 
At 5:01 PM, Blogger ashes1998 said...

It sounds like Gump is a poor comparison.

He caused change to all around him, even if he didn't change.

And this script sounds like the original Stoker novel.. which was.. not too exciting.

For Victorian times, it was *titillating*.

But dry British dramas don't do much for me, and I would guess not for many readers.

 
At 7:57 PM, Blogger Emily Blake said...

In Garden State, Zack Braff's character spends most of the movie being kind of dead inside, but in that case it works because undeadening himself IS the story.

 
At 10:01 PM, Blogger glassblowerscat said...

Fight Club.

 
At 5:38 PM, Blogger Alexander Allrich said...

Sounds like the real problem with the script was that it was just too episodic -- with the dreary vampire anti-hero as the only common thread. Not enough of a dynamic plot to make up for a weak lead.

 
At 8:03 PM, Blogger Christina said...

Sometimes in an ensemble movie there will be one sort of passive, unchanging character that all of the other characters revolve around. I'm thinking about Hannah in Hannah and Her Sisters. And the mother character in Little Miss Sunshine. My point is that I think a passive, non-quirky character only works in ensemble films.

Forrest Gump was quirky. So was Chance the Gardner in Being There. Both of them are fools, really.

 
At 1:25 AM, Blogger Christine F said...

"The Accidental Tourist" has a very passive character in the lead. William Hurt plays him beautifully. He resists change and clings to boring. Geena Davis is the active character who wants to bring him back to life but it is his story, not hers.

 
At 2:30 PM, Blogger Lisa said...

I agree with The Accidental Tourist and disagree about Hannah being passive in Hannah and her Sisters because she starts out as being poised, beautiful and having everything, but eventually becomes neurotic and overly analytical about whether or not she needs to change and it's her sisters driving her to this point.

I once heard that a passive protagonist is the number one way to recognize a first time writer. Perhaps this is the case with your Vampire script?

My thought is that Gump was an active player in his life, but since he's narrating, he becomes passive. However, he is active throughout the love story (the spine) in his pursuit of Jenny.

Just my two cents. Have a great weekend!

 
At 5:00 PM, Blogger Host said...

Well, both leads in Lost In Translation are passive wanderers; passengers in their own life.

I wonder though, Scott -- it feels as though the market is oversaturated right now with vampire films and television shows. Do you think it's a good time to be making more vampire movies? Is it too much now, or are people going to keep milking this trend for even longer?

 
At 5:04 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Vampires are hot now, and I'm sure they'll continue to be until oversaturation sets in and vampire projects start to be unproftable. Hasn't happened yet.

 
At 5:39 PM, Blogger Christine F said...

Maybe Benny & Joon. Benny is surrounded by very active, colorful characters, and to balance out his life, he is rather dull and ordinary. AND very resistant to change. Change is chaos so he tries to keep order, affecting both his and Joon's ability to move forward and actually have a life.

So those are my two picks: The Accidental Tourist and Benny & Joon.

Not to many come to mind, huh.

Scott, did you come up with any yourself? Or agree with the ones here?

 
At 11:26 PM, Blogger Brandon said...

**SPOILER ALERT**

Although, most people reading this blog will have seen the movie I am referring to.

When talking about passive characters, the phrase "deus ex machina" comes to mind. When something happens to the main character that helps the main character accomplish the goal, although he didn't actually do anything.

One movie popped into my head.

Seven. (or Se7en)

Now, don't get me wrong, the movie is great, and that's why I bring it up. Because the main characters don't do anything, yet they are still compelling and the film works.

What I mean when I say they don't do anything is this. A body is found, they investigate, find no clues. Another body is found, they investigate, find no clues. Another body is found, they investigate, find no clues. They figure out the seven deadly sins theme, but have no real leads.

Then the killer just turns himself in. Which turns out is all part of his plan. Did they stop the killer from killing? No. Did they catch him? No, he turned himself in.

The main characters aren't dull, but I think they could be considered pretty passive. However Andrew Kevin Walker makes it work.

The passive character thing you bring up Scott, seems to happen more in mystery or crime movies, where the cop/detective gets an "anonymous tip" or a witness comes forward, making the hero reactionary rather than proactive.

The exact opposite would be The Fugitive, despite the train crash. After that Dr. Kimble is pretty much doing something proactive in every scene throughout the movie.

 
At 1:55 PM, Blogger sharon said...

I vote for kiss of death.

 
At 4:38 AM, Blogger Steve Axelrod said...

anthuswilliams -- Gump is passive? He spends the whole movie trying to save people -- he carried Lieutenant Dan out of the fire zone, started his own shrimping company and hired Dan as first mate. He tried to save Jenny from the strip club and the Black Panthers, nursed his Mom when she was dying, Nursed jenny when she was dying, started a cult by running across the country, became a ping pong champion in China ... this is possibly the least passive character ever.

 
At 4:47 PM, Blogger Travis Fields said...

If the Lead in a movie is a Writer, than the lead is probably a passive or reactive character. At least initially. Good Soldiers often have that problem as the Lead too. Both tend to be "dutiful" or "overly mannered" characters.

But obviously, some of these characters are more entertaining, intriguing and compelling than others...

 

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