Monday, August 1, 2011

Why readers pass: character

I finally finished another draft of a feature so I have a minute or two of free time until I get soul-crushing notes. Woo! In the meantime, I thought you guys might want to read some posts about why readers pass on scripts, since you don't want readers to pass. You want them to consider or recommend you.

So - why do readers pass? First, let's talk about character. Characters don't always have to be likeable, but it helps. If I hate the person I'm reading about, I'm not going to enjoy 110 pages of him. If you're writing people who aren't likeable, then we should at least understand why they do what they do. "Sympathetic" is another way to think about it. Do I feel for your character? Want him/her to succeed? Make sure that you show us how the characters feel about what's happening in the story; emotional tracking will help us root for them.

Characters also need to be specific and unique. Do they have specific quirks or traits? Do their voices sound different from the other characters? Do I know some backstory about them? Do locations tell me about them? Actions? Sometimes plot-heavy scripts suffer from bland characters. If your main dude is simply trying to stay alive and fight bad guys throughout the movie, you may have to work a little harder to show us more about him, since his goal doesn't really tell us much about him as a character. This is where you might work on his emotional needs, flaws and arc. I recently read a script in which the characters were likable and had noble reasons to be looking for money fast - but this was almost the only thing I knew about them. It was a cool, ambitious concept, so it got a consider...but the lack of character work was one of the things that made me add "with reservations."

More about the arc: In features, characters should change over the course of the story. They learn a lesson and apply it to their lives, the way Macaulay Culkin learns to appreciate his family in Home Alone or how Natalie Portman stops pushing Ashton Kutcher away because she's afraid she'll get hurt in No Strings Attached. A common note is that characters don't have arcs, have too small of arcs or have confusing arcs. Make sure the arc actually fits with the theme and the events of a story. I don't think there's always one right answer to the question of what the arc should be, since there are different sides of a story to explore. But if an arc isn't there, you'll likely get a pass.

Readers also think about actors. Would an A-list star want to play this character? Is there depth and range in the part? Is there comedy that will push an actor to his limits? Are there satisfying moments of desperation? Confrontation? Tension? Subtext?

Lastly, don't forget about your supporting cast. Stanley Tucci wasn't just any old scientist in Captain America. Jonah Hill wasn't a boring hotel employee in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Infusing your supporting cast with specific details will make your script polished and memorable. Also, make sure the supporting characters (and antagonists) aren't just convenient devices for our leads. Do their goals make sense? Are their choices believable?

Here are some snippets of character notes I've written in coverage lately:

"Not much conflict is mined out of their differences, or how they might disagree on how to handle each situation."

"It’s not entirely clear what they think they’re going to accomplish"

"he’s a little too omniscient in his advice"

"His antagonism is convenient and unmotivated; he comes across as more of a stock villain than a real person."

"It's too obvious that they're not meant for each other."

"We don't really get a sense of whether she likes him or not."

"Why is he doing what he does? What got him on this path? Is he hoping to one day do something else?"

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Carlos Matthews Hernandez said...

Love this post. Always good to have these reminders.

Unknown said...

I respectfully disagree that characters should have an arc in features. If the story is about people changing, then yes they should have an arc, but some of the "best" movies ever made don't have them (Raiders of the Lost Ark for example)