Forgive me if this is a lengthy post, but I believe it’s a lesson every inexperienced screenwriter misses. If you’re thinking of picking up a book on screenwriting, one lesson that should be highlighted entirely in bold is that in writing CHOICE. It’s our choices that define us as human beings. Do we choose to face that all-important pile of laundry, or forego that task in favour of watching the latest episode of Jersey Whores?
In nearly every screenplay that I read, screenwriters more often fail to present their characters with CHOICES. Call these plot devices, plot points, action, or whatever. You can have a well written character outline, but it will crumble if you never give your character anything to do. You need to place your characters in situations where your character MUST make a choice.
Does your character choose to succumb to adultery, because he can’t keep it in his pants? Does your character choose to run into a burning building, despite the immense dangers placed in front of them? Does your character choose to enter the dark cave, when all the other characters are too afraid to? Coke or Pepsi? Turn back, or keep going? Keep going, or turn back?
How will your character problem solve? Is your character absolutely perfect and never makes mistakes? Hopefully not. I’ve read too many idealistic plots, where everything goes as planned, and nothing really interesting ever happens. Moreover, if your character never makes a choice, the movie is HORRENDOUSLY boring. Who wants to watch a movie where the characters never do anything? zzzzz.
I know I’ve written on this similarly before, and I hate to sound like a broken record, but judging by a few of the writing pieces I’ve read recently, I somehow doubt this has sunk in yet.
The following is an extensive list of examples of characters presented with choices. These choices define the characters, and move the plot foreward.
Star Trek (2009)
Young Kirk is a rebel ‘without a cause’. Can you imagine how boring the movie would have been if Captain Pike never came to Kirk, and presented him with a choice?
“Now, your father was captain of a Starship for 12 minutes. He saved 800 lives, including your mother’s and yours. I dare you to do better.” – Captain Pike
Now we’re getting somewhere. Kirk has a choice to make. The audience WANTS him to choose starfleet, because that means cool spaceships, lazers, and aliens.
YES! Now I’ll keep watching.
The Hunger Games (2012)
“Primrose Everdeen” says Effie Trinket.
“I VOLUNTEER!” screams Katness.
Can you imagine what this movie would be like if Katness chose not to volunteer? Well, that would be an entirely different story, and also make her a huge bitch. It’s the choice that defines her as being the hero. In that single choice, she showed the audience she is noble, and stout of heart. Write a sitation in which all your characters worst nightmares come true. What does your character choose to do?
“When will my life begin?” sings Repunzel. Well, if she stayed in her tower, that would be pretty boring wouldn’t it?
I know what I’m preaching may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many writers miss this all important step. Characters can be TORN when faced with a choice. It may seem so simple, for Repunzel to leave her tower, but it isn’t. Will she risk betraying Mother? Will she risk the dangers her mother has warned about? She is safe in her tower, but will she pursue her dreams? If she chooses to do nothing, what does that say about her character?
When Neytiri meets Jake Sully for the first time, she has no quarrels with sending an arrow through his heart. But something stops her: a choice.
The seed of the sacred tree seemingly pops out of nowhere. Should Neytiri kill Jake? Or stand up for what she believes in?
The Matrix (1999)
Alright Neo, you want the blue pill or the red pill?
We ALL want Neo to take the red pill. If he didn’t then there wouldn’t be a story!!! … but maybe you’re the kind of writer who thinks he can be clever or ironic forcing your character to take the blue pill instead. If you make it work then, sure, whatever. However, if you do the opposite of what the audience expects all the time, then you’re either a film school art snob, or kind of an idiot. But that’s ok. If you think it’s working for you, then by all means ignore this post.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Now here is a movie about choice.Writer and director Chris Nolan really know’s what he’s doing. Using the fantastic characters in batman canon, Nolan gives us with a story all about choice. This, I believe, is what makes it so good.
You’re presented with 3 characters that offer a trio of conflict. Batman, who chooses to do the right thing at all costs, will never favour his own feelings if it means dismissing his vows of morality. This is why Batman goes after Harvey Dent instead of his love Rachel. For Gotham City cannot lose it’s ‘white knight’.
In doing so, Harvey Dent is presented with his own choices. After losing his love, and the very thing he was fighting for, he chooses to let ‘chance’ define his choices with his quarter.
This is an interesting dynamic, because Harvey’s choices can vary from anything. He isn’t nessesarily a villain, but a character torn by emotion.
Then there is the Joker. Heath Ledger’s oscar winning performance aside, this is a character who is truly wicked. With a torn past never fully explained, the Joker isn’t driven by money, or power. He simply delights in forcing good people into making choices. He tests the limits of morality.
He sets up various schemes like forcing Batman to choose between Rachel and Harvey. Forcing the citizens of Gotham to kill someone or he’ll blow up a hospital, then blows up the hospital anyway. Forcing the citizens of Gotham to choose whether or not to kill a boat full of prisoners, or let the prisoners blow them up.
The audience delights in watching the Joker at work, because we chew our nails trying to figure out what the characters will choose.
Overall, choice is behind any plot. It’s choice that can keep the audience guessing. It’s choice that restores the audience’s faith in humanity. Show your characters actively choose the right thing at all costs. They’re called heros. In contrast to this, if we watch a tragedy, we delight in knowing we can be better than the characters we watch, or feel not so alone in sharing a characters pain. We like to believe there is good left in the world, and is the reason why we keep buying movie tickets.
Don’t be afraid of asking the bigger questions in life, and having your character’s answer them.
All in all, give your characters a reason to live. Give your characters reasons to do what they do. If you don’t, your script will be one fry short of a happy meal.
“Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” – Albus Dumbledore
Exercise: Watch ANY movie on your shelf, and write down all the things that force your character to make a choice. What does the character choose? What is the other option they could have taken? How will that have defined the story? Is there a choice in this movie that your character could make? how would your character react?
One of the more popular character traits in writing is that of the vigilante. Although vigilantism is a popular theme used in cinema and books, I feel novice writers often overlook it.
So why write vigilantism? It means the difference between choosing what is right and what is wrong. It is the action of taking the law and matters of morality into one’s own hands. IE: “Who watches the Watchmen?” or “remember remember the fifth of November” and so on. The question of taking the law into your own hands creates a dynamic character trait that works for both protagonists and antagonists alike.
Just look at the difference between Batman and the Joker in Nolan’s interpretation of The Dark Knight. Both characters take the law into their own hands. Batman’s reasoning, is that Gotham needs a hero, for corruption is as deep as the law itself. In the case of the Joker however, he lives to upset the status quo. The Joker forces Batman, and other characters into making difficult decisions. The difference between the two, is simply the fact that Batman is trying to save lives, while the Joker… well… he just likes to see what happens when you throw a wrench into a working machine.
One of my favorite examples of vigilantism, is through J. K. Rowling’s epic Harry Potter. The older Harry gets, the more he realizes the importance of sticking to your values. The greatest lesson Dumbledore taught Harry, was to ‘stick to your guns’. The ‘Ministry of Magic’ didn’t like how Dumbledore did things, because he stood by his own values, even if they conflicted with those of the state. In a corrupt world where Dark Magic takes over, Harry and his friends find themselves in a battle between “what is right, and what is easy”. This is a reoccurring theme in every book. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, readers can relate to the students of Hogwarts, living under the oppressive and cruel Deloris Umbridge. Furthermore, Rowling justifies ‘vigilantism’ by revealing through plot, the intentions of the antagonists and forces of evil.
Voldemort’s goal is to rule the world – (the pursuit of power). That means in his mind, he is above the law. The plot of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, strays from the rest of the series, in that is is essentially a ‘fugitive’ story. Harry, Hermione, and Ron are all criminals in the corrupt state of the Ministry of Magic. The audience revels in knowing the characters are innocent, and in pursuit of what’s right. This creates masterful conflict, and the audience is in a constant state of unrest until the characters are free.
Another famed vigilante Mad Max, struggles with what to do as an ex-police officer living in a post-apocalyptic world. What is a police officer to do with nothing to police? In a world where no law or rules can be upheld, people’s true colours start to shine. In the end, when you create a vigilante, you must maintain certain boundaries your characters will never cross. Harry Potter and Batman would never kill a person to pursue their goals. The Joker and Voldemort would. You could however, create a character like V in V for Vendetta, who has no qualms killing someone to pursue his task of blowing up parliament. But he would never kill someone if it didn’t help him pursue his goal of revenge against those that create injustice. All protagonists have moral limits and boundaries. Antagonists do not. The question of how far you want to push your protagonist is up to you. At the end of all things, the line between good vs evil is blurred, as even Harry Potter is put up to the task of having to kill Voldemort. Does the end justify the means? You decide. That’s what writing is all about.