miércoles, 11 de febrero de 2009
The wonderful Mystery Man on Film recently published an article on Script Magazine, discussing the need of main characters to change. This has spawned a lot of controversy. Why?
Because as we all know, books, gurus, analysts, readers and the industry say the main character should change from beginning to end.
But there are tons of characters in cinema history who don’t arc. In successful movies, six-figure scripts and in lots of classic novels.
Among these non-arching characters, loosely speaking, I find these categories:
1.Characters whose essence can't be changed:
-The Serial Characters
2.Characters who won't realize they must change:
-The Quixote Characters
3.Characters who can’t change, although they’d like to:
-The Tragic Characters
4.Characters who decide not to change:
-The Mafioso Characters
Of course, these categories are not exclusive. One character can belong to two or more, as we’ll see.
I’ll focus on the first right now. I’ll get with the others and their subtypes some other day.
THE SERIAL CHARACTERS: THEIR ESSENCE CAN'T BE CHANGED
Characters whose essence can't be changed? Who are they anyway? Let’s say James Bond, Dr. House, Hercule Poirot, Indiana Jones, Fox Mulder, Sherlock Holmes… you all know them and sure can tell some more.
Why don’t they need to change? Why were they designed that way? What were their writers thinking of?
The answer is quite simple. They are serial characters. They simply act like cicerones: they are our vehicle for enjoying an adventure. The story is not “about” those characters and their inner selves. They are there just to show us around and lead the action.
Why shouldn’t they change? Because they don’t have to. Only characters with fatal flaws should change. Simply put, a “fatal flaw”, at least for me, is something a character must overcome to be perfectly happy, or to get over their traumas and backstories.
Most tv characters work this way. Why? Because writers need to write and the audience need to watch season after season of different adventures featuring the same characters. For example, detectives as Fox Mulder, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Remington Steele, Columbo, etc are designed that way. They just can’t arc in every episode or issue! They would look like lunatics and we would lose interest in the series.
Hey! But there are tv serial characters with fatal flaws!
Yes and no. In the last times, there has been talk of the “influence of cinema in current tv-series”. For me, this influence is mainly seen in protagonists, which are given a film-like characteristic which tv-characters usually lacked: a fatal flaw. Take, for example, a classic detective, Columbo: quirky, talented, funny and even disliked by his peers… but he never had a fatal flaw to overcome.
Greg House, on the contrary, is a movie character in a tv series. He’s a doctor with the inability to show his true feelings, which leads him to reject love, friendship, being humane with his patients… but everybody seems to know that deep inside, he’s a good guy. Will he arc and overcome his great flaw which makes him unhappy?
When good old Greg shows that he’s capable of being sincere, loving and truly caring, the arc will be complete and the series will be over. Until then, we’ll have plenty of seasons in which, masterfully executed, every episode is a test for House’s humanity-despising flaws, and we’ll enjoy on watching him trying to avoid change.
Because this is what we enjoy in a serial character, specially in tv-ones: we love Al Bundy, Chris Peterson, or any of the characters in Friends because they don’t change. They are imperfect, and the success of the show depends on the ability of the writers to create situations where these quirks and talents are displayed in the most amusing way (specially true in sitcoms).
What if a serial character changed? The answer would be that the series would end, killing the franchise, the show, the movie and the character. Or would you stick watching a caring, lovable, humane, talented Dr. House living a happy life, married to Cuddy, having some tea with his team and bowling on Saturday nights with Wilson? No friggin’ way.
Ok, enough tv characters. What about film?
The same applies. Every character created for starring in a series of films doesn’t need to arc. We, the audience, will recognize the “series” model, and our minds will shift to non-arching mode, thus enjoying the movie.
James Bond, Larry Palmer, Indiana Jones, and lots of others were created from serial models. Bond is a serial novel character, just like Hercule Poirot! And even Indiana Jones was created with the serial pulp-adventure hero in mind.
This kind of film Serial Character enjoyed a heyday in the late 70’s and 80’s, showing signs of decline in the 90’s, as we will see.
Wait! But…some of them change!
Yes and not. To make films more enjoyable, writers make sure that there’s some kind of change in these characters or their situations. But there aren’t real arcs, because these characters didn’t have any life-threatening flaws in the beginning.
Remember that a change in a start-to-end situation doesn’t necessarily change the characters. I, personally, can’t see any arc in Indiana Jones. Sure, in the third one he regains Pa’s love, and in the fourth he gets a wife and a son. But seriously, he is not going to change being an adventurer, because that is not making him unhappy.
Or do you seriously think not being able to commit to a serious relationship is making Bond unhappy?
No, really, dude. Some of them arc!
Yes and no. Some characters started as ordinary, fatal-flawed movie characters, and only then were turned into serial characters. You can use his quirkiness and abilities to build a series of films where the character fits once his arch is complete. This sometimes works, like in Shrek.
And sometimes it happens that you have an awesome, quirky and talented non-flawed character in a movie who is succesfully turned into a serial character, which makes the change more natural, like the Terminator.
This is also why some unplanned sequels fail: in the first film, the hero is changed, and there’s nothing more to be said about him. This is why Robocop didn’t make good sequels.
Because he had a fatal flaw (he couldn’t regain his humanity) and by the end of the first movie, that was solved. After this, they could make a tv-series of Murphy’s adventures: Robo was quirky and powerful enough- but you couldn’t make truly successful film sequels, because the arching is done.
This is also (possibly) why nobody has done Predator 3, even in today’s sequel-fevered world. No matter how good the Predator is as a serial villain, he is a Terminator-type character, making it difficult for him to be a main character. In a word, Predator lacks what Alien and Terminator have: serial main characters as Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor / John Connor. They day they design one that fits, Predator 3 will be on the way.
What about sending Danny Glover to space?
Wait… I’m damn sure some of them arc!! Didn’t you recently see …?
Serial heroes in recent movies are arching. They are given fatal flaws and they truly change. Really?
Yes and no. It’s called rebooting. They take a serial character and give him a new start, being it really a new ‘spin-off’, ‘what if’, saga, or other terms that comic-book aficionados know very well.
I remember it was even in the news when they said the “new” James Bond would arc. And he does, indeed, but with a twist. They are just showing us how a film character became a serial character. But when “Quantum of Solace” ended, I though Jimbo had came back to his old self, and the next movies will be the old same. I hope I’m wrong.
The same happens with today’s superhero movies. They are, from their comic-book origins, serial characters. Yes, you can give them fatal flaws, and solve them- but then you kill the films. You still could make a serial tv-show with the character and his abilities (as thousands of animated cartoons show), but no more, unless you reboot them.
I feel that this is also what happened with the Batman-Schumacher franchise. Not enough room for the amount of change that a movie needs. And it was way too quirky for films! Funny enough, the cartoon tv-series Batman was alive and well. But the Movie Batman had been killed.
And that is why the series had to be rebooted. What do we have in The Dark Knight? Batman in the hands of wonderful writers who designed him masterfully, giving him a necessary flaw to arc positively, while at the same time, he develops another one, arching negatively.
Not only the setting up of the next movie is superb, it also ensures that Batman is human and gets new flaws as he “learns” how to be a superhero, making the next movie not just a sequel, but a continuum. This, for me is masterful writing and a new step in the development of the art.
And guess what? Robocop 4 is on the way. It’s a reboot, of course. Damn, I wish they rebooted Predator also. Wait! Seems Robert Rodriguez thinks just as me...
But really, again… do they really change? Does Batman, as a character, arc?
My answer is: no. As a character, Batman, like Indy, Bond, and many others can be rebooted anytime, starring in a new cartoon, spin-off, comic book, tv-series or movie franchise, because we, as an audience, will always recognize the original core of the Serial Character and hope for a new twist on his quirks, abilities and conflicts, some more successful, some less.
Their essence can't be changed. It will live forever.
I don’t think we’ll ever say: ‘Wait! They killed Superman in that comic book. They just can’t make a new movie-novel-series-whatever!’ We never believed it. We knew that, as a Serial character, he would get new adventures soon.
An important thing: what genres do the Serial Character stars in? It seems to me that mainly in the Action-Adventure genre, besides Classic Mysteries, Superhero movies and some Detective movies/series.
Finally, and as a personal note, I think the Serial Character temptation might be too much for a newbie writer, specially in superhero-crowded times. Why can’t I write a movie about a secret agent similar to Bond? Or make up a new superhero? Why they rejected my script on the basis that my character didn’t change? Don’t they see he shouldn’t?
Here’s my own opinion (which you probably shouldn’t follow):
As with millions of other things, (from proper formatting to misspellings), some professionals can get away with it, but novices will not. I personally feel that if you are an aspiring screenwriter, it’s risky to write using Serial Characters as protagonists.
I think that if you don’t have a pre-existing serial character, which everybody knows and loves, it’s very hard that a serial character of your creation will get past the reader.
Ironically enough, as Mystery Man points out some genres, seem to require serial non-arching characters (as classic mysteries), and very possibly, the industry makes a mistake demanding arching characters in stories or genres where they really don’t need to arc.
But who knows! Maybe times have a-changed and we, as film audience, require that amount of arching to be truly satisfied. Maybe that was one of the things I missed in Indy 4: it was like watching a 80’s movie! Indy seemed so flat… To me, it felt like watching another episode, or reading another comic book in Indy’s adventures. But on the other hand, I think Indy shouldn’t be given a fatal flaw. He's ok as he is.
Maybe simply the serial non-arching kind of character doesn’t work for film anymore. Maybe these characters won’t interest audiences, critics or readers because we’ve all gotten used to watching that satisfactory feeling of a round, full, diametral arc.
But again, who knows! You might create the next great Serial Character of our time. Or best, when in a near future any of you are Inside The Business…
… then you might write the next James Bond flick and rejoice yourself in non-arching mode.
OK, so this is the first issue of the series (so don't expect a lot of change :) ). I’d love to hear your opinions. Feel free to debate my thoughts thinking of the thousands of exceptions to what I said above.
But here’s a caveat: I don’t intend to tell what’s right or wrong! I think that there are no stone-cast rules or universal truths for anything,
And that includes all the above.
martes, 20 de enero de 2009
I think there are no set rules, formulas, or universal truths which can be applied to every script of film out there. Not the most sacred! But I could be wrong.
Thus, what you will find here are thoughts. No sage advice, no guru talk, no trying to make universal rules.
I’m not looking for the truth.
I just, once in a while, come up with things that help me in my writing.
I’m not looking for the truth.
Those same things that may help you, or not.
I’m not looking for the truth.
You might agree or not.
Just trying to have some fun while I do the thing I love most in the world.
I am a writer living thousands of miles away from sunny
And as many of you, I try to learn it from every book, article, quote or blog.
One day, I read myself on my favourite screenwriting blog (Mystery Man on Film), and I thought maybe I should share some of my thoughts. Who knows! They might be useful for someone
Just as the thoughts of many others help me all the time.