Archive for Characters
What do we fear the most? Probably most of us wouldn’t say we’re worried about giant robots or lizards, sharks brought to us via tornados, or zombies, although all of those can be fun to watch at the movies. However, each of those does have some foundation–however distant–in reality. If you want to write a horror film it’s a good idea to start with what people really fear and then decide how realistic a version of that fear you want to create.
One common fear is the ally who turns into an enemy. History is full of double-crosses and unfortunately many of us have experienced a betrayal by someone we trusted.
On the level of realistic drama we have characters like Alex, the woman with whom the protagonist of Fatal Attraction has a fling. At first it seems like she sees the situation as he does: a one-night affair, probably a bad idea but one without lasting consequences. Of course it’s not long before we’re into bunny-boiling and he is facing a formidable enemy.
Moving on to more traditional horror territory (spoiler alert!), in Scream the boyfriend upon whom Sidney depends for protection turns out to be the killer. There are also major betrayals in Aliens, The Fellowship of the Ring, 300, Ghost, The Matrix, and many more.
It’s a fine tradition that goes back to Shakespeare, the Greek tragedies, and the Bible as well. Sometimes the person doing the betraying had that in mind all along, other times something happens during the course of the story to change their loyalties.
You can decide whether the audience should know the betrayer’s intentions before your protagonist or find it out at the same moment. The former builds suspense–we wonder when the protagonist will finally figure it out; the latter generates shock. Both can be powerful but since horror movies often try for shock value, they lean more toward the latter.
In the case of a monster movie it can be the monster itself that goes from friendly to murderous. Poor old Frankenstein and King Kong both had good intentions but circumstances turned them into monsters in the eyes of the public. Or it may be a perfectly good friend whose personality changes when he becomes one of the undead.
The fear of betrayal, of people turning on us, is a survival instinct that still lives within, so why not take advantage of it to create a powerful horror script?
In future posts we’ll look at several other key fears that can be a great foundation for a horror or thriller film.
(You’re not going to turn on me by not buying my book, Your Writing Coach, are you? Not after all we’ve been through! You can get it at Amazon or your other favorite bookseller. We’re good, right? …Right?)
A lot of adventure, action and superhero movies set up a conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Nothing wrong with that, as the box office results of many of these films reflect. However, if you want to write a story with more depth you’ll need to move closer to the kind of choices ordinary people face.
After all, how many times in your life have you had to choose between doing something you knew was good and something you knew was evil—I mean super-villain evil? Probably not often if at all.
On the other hand, how often have you had to decide what to do in situations where both choices had their pluses and minuses? Probably frequently. Other times both seem equally good or both seem mostly negative and you’re trying to figure out the lesser of two evils. I’m talking about dilemmas like these:
* You’re not as keen on somebody else as they are on you. If you tell them, you’ll hurt them now. If you don’t, they may get the wrong impression and it could hurt them more later.
* You know that a friend of yours is more seriously ill than she lets on. Do you let her know that you know so that you can be more helpful, or do you respect her wishes to keep her friends in the dark?
* You get a good job offer but it requires moving to another city. It will allow you to provide more for your family but it also will mean forcing your children to change schools in the middle of the school year and taking them away from their current circle of friends. Do you go or do you stay?
When you add regret to this equation, since in hindsight whichever choice we make can seem to have been the wrong one, you find yourself dealing with universals of the human condition.
Of course to craft a highly dramatic screenplay you may need to present your protagonist with choices that are more extreme but equally complicated. That’s when we begin to identify with your character, to get more involved by thinking about which choice we would make, and experiencing the results of their choice vicariously.
If you have a script that has a strong basic story but could use some additional depth, look beyond the actions of the characters to the reasons for those actions.
For instance, a kidnapper can be portrayed as just a villain motivated by greed, pure and simple. But there might be interesting aspects of that character to explore. Perhaps he was abused as a child and sees the kidnapping as a kind of rescue (even if the supposed abuse of the child he takes is all in his mind). Or maybe she finds in the course of holding the child hostage that she’s not as hard a person as she thought she was. Or maybe he feels he’s exhausted every legitimate avenue of getting money for something of true importance.
When you explore the characters in greater depth the story and dialogue gain more depth as well, and that can help even a superhero film. The vulnerability and failings of Spiderman, for example, have (in my opinion) always made him a more interesting character than Superman.
Look beyond good vs. evil, there’s character and story treasure to be found.
(Great writers like Dickens, Twain, Austen, Fitzgerald and Vonnegut knew how to create fascinating characters and put them into compelling stories. Many of these authors offered writing advice that serves the modern screenwriter or novelist, too. I’ve collected that advice and added suggestions on how to apply it to your writing. It’s all in the book called Your Creative Writing Masterclass. It’s published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)
…not suspecting that his/her life is about to change forever.
I’m sure you care if YOUR life is about to change forever but it’s hard to care whether the life of some character about whom we know almost nothing is about to change.
The writer who uses that phrase hopes it’s enticingly mysterious. Actually, it’s just vague.
A better strategy is to give away a bit more, especially if the change is one to which potential readers and viewers can relate. For instance:
…not suspecting that his resemblance to a killer is about to send him into the hell of today’s criminal justice system.
…not suspecting that her curiosity is going to reveal her husband’s a secret life with another woman.
…not suspecting that the price of his ambition is losing the love and respect of his wife and children.
While these are extreme, they touch upon fears that most people will have experienced at some point: that they may be accused mistakenly, that someone they trust has betrayed them, that the price of success is too high.
Incorporating a universal element, even as briefly as this, will make a pitch or blurb come alive–and that could lead to a sale, in which case your life may be about to change forever!