Wednesday, June 11, 2008

People vs. Devices

One of my pet peeves in writing is when characters seem not to be fully fleshed out people but instead to be devices for plot or other characters. I find myself giving this note a lot. It's not usually about protagonists; we all know your story should be about who she is, what she wants and how she endeavors to achieve it. But what about those other people involved along the way?

Common devices:

1. The Love Interest. So your main dude goes after a girl. But what is SHE doing? What does she want? Please don't have her just stand around and look hot. What is so special about her that catches your guy's eye? And, as Jason Katims would say, "mess it up." It'd be really convenient if your guy asked her out on a date and she said yes and they lived happily ever after. Convenient and BORING! How about this: she likes somebody else. Or, she likes him, but she's stopping herself from dating right now because her last boyfriend was psycho. Or, she'll go out on the date, but because she has the ulterior motive of kidnapping his cat. Or getting closer to his sister, whom she really likes. Or maybe she wants to use him for sex, but not get involved in an emotional relationship. See all these ideas? These stem from a character who wants things and sets out to achieve them - not from a device your protagonist can simply use. Much messier.

2. The Comic Relief. This one is tough - but you know that guy who stands around in your pilot chiming in with witty banter? He's a device too. What does he want? Why is he funny? Is there a motivation behind why he makes fun of your protagonist? I don't mean to overthink this (I do believe that jokes are jokes and funny is funny) but the best jokes come from character. Chandler always had a lot of fun, sarcastic things to say -but he was also a friend and a husband and a driver of plots.

3. The Messer-Upper. This may seem like a contradiction to my explanation of #1, since I really like Jason Katims' idea of messing up your script. But hear me out. Sometimes new characters will be brought into shows to mess them up - and sometimes in an unnatural way. I lovelovelove Brothers & Sisters, but I felt kind of cheated when Lena showed up. She felt like a device to me; Rebecca just happened to have this friend we never knew, who just happened to need a job. And there just happened to be a job opening at Ojai, and Lena just happened to be really attracted to Tommy, who just happened to be attracted to her. Boom. Affair. Now, it seemed completely natural for Tommy to have the affair; he had been having problems with his wife for a while. But Tommy is a fully fleshed out character - and to me, Lena was not a naturally evolving character, but the device to get Tommy to cheat and cause more conflict in his marriage. I think we learned more about her later, but in the beginning her arrival seemed kinda convenient.

I feel like The Messer-Upper device also happened on The OC a couple times. Many new characters would be brought in to mess up the two couples, Marissa/Ryan and Seth/Summer. Don't get me wrong - I liked a lot of these people, and I do think many of them had some nice depth. Still, I found the principle to be problematic: there'd be a new guest character to come in and mess things up for a while, and then after s/he left, the couple would be stable again, and then we'd meet a new person to mess them up. The cycle just kept repeating. I found it dissatisfying because it felt like our couples were not evolving, but just going back to square one.

By the way, the ABC/Disney Fellowship application is up, and the deadline is later than we all thought: August 8, 2008. Thanks for the emails - my readers rock!

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Anonymous said...

I find it kind of funny how the numerous posts and articles I've read on story improvement seem to not apply to most blockbusters.

Today's bad movies stun me because certain things, such as the "Love Interest" being a robot, for example, are continuously overlooked or shrugged off. It makes me wonder how the script caught anybody's attention in the first place.

I'm not saying it's just the writer's fault. On the upper level, the writer(s) are usually just trying to please those who are in actual control of the film.

Matt said...

Minor nitpick-- it's spelled, "Ojai." I used to work up there, and people hate it when it's spelled (or pronounced) wrong.

Allison said...

I very much agree with your Brothers & Sisters criticism. "Plot device" was the first thing that came to mind when she was introduced for all of the plot device-y reasons you mentioned.

J. R. said...

One thing to note about Chandler is that he also had a lot of childhood issues being an only child raised by a hot blonde that was always chasing younger men and his mom. One of Phoebe's boyfriends, who was a therapist, even said that Chandler hid behind his comedy. However, most shows don't get 10 seasons to develop a character that much.

Dave Ale said...

And the key here is all in how you look at your characters.

If you create a character with the intention of being a device, ie "she's going to mess things up" -- if that is you're first though, you're screwed.

The best way to add a character who isn't a device (imo) is to give them a motivation that is unrelated to any of the main characters, until the main character either inadvertently or intentionally gets in the way of the minor character and their goal.

Joe and Amy are struggling in their relationship. If you throw Sally in to mess things up -- that's a device. However, if Sally is trying to become prom queen, and later on Amy decides to become prom queen -- now Sally has a reason to go after Amy. Flesh Sally out more before this occurs.

One of the best pieces of advice I've received: everyone believes they're in the spotlight. Don't make your characters -- even your minor ones -- any different.

As a device I'd also add the side-kick who always gets in trouble, forcing the protagonist to act to bail them out.