Fully Wolf And Fully Human

“… I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.”

Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

 

So many great characters have a dark side.  From Luke Skywalker tempted by the dark side of the Force to Bruce Banner trying to tame the Hulk within, we love watching another human being wrestle with their darkest impulses – and sometimes what we love best is watching them lose.

The dark side of man is deeply woven into European myth, and reaches its peak in those two classic nightmare figures, the vampire and the werewolf. Though human in appearance (at least part of the time), they’re at the mercy of an uncontrollable animal nature that threatens to well up when they’re exposed to certain cues – the full moon, the smell of blood – and overwhelm them.  They’re dangerous to others, and at best can only exist on the margins of society, where their true nature can be hidden or controlled.

Or can they?

While developing Wolfblood, I wanted to take a whole new approach to the animal nature.  Because I believe mankind is, as Dr. Jekyll observed, “truly two” – or five, or twelve, or any number of facets.  We all carry within us all kinds of apparent contradictions.  We can be gay and devoutly religious: a career woman and a dedicated mother; conservative on some issues and virtually libertarian on others.  And as long as we openly acknowledge the different facets of our personality, and appropriately towards those around us, that’s a good thing.  It’s the interactions between the differing facets of our personality that make us who we are.

So the characters in Wolfblood don’t fear and hate their animal nature.  It’s a valued part of them.  This, of course, meant making some story-telling decisions on how that animal nature is expressed, because once they’re ‘fully wolf and fully human’ (as I told everyone, a lot more times than they needed to hear it!)  the old rules don’t apply any more.

So we rewrote the werewolf myth as a gift rather than a curse, a natural ability rather than an unnatural one, something that empowered our characters rather than tormented them.  Is transformation pleasant or unpleasant?  How much control do they have over when it happens? How far do they remain themselves in wolf form? What part do wolf senses and instincts play in their human lives?  All up for grabs in this new world…

The best part of all this, of course, is that we were able to pick and choose from existing werewolf stories, taking the elements we found useful and discarding others – and there are plenty of myths and legends still waiting to be explored!

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To Flashback, Or Not To Flashback?

So, I’ve been watching Once Upon A Time, which is a lot of fun, with some great performances.  But to my mind, there’s a flaw in the concept –  a flaw familiar from Lost, a flaw that in fact we rarely saw before Lost

Extended flashbacks.

Once Upon A Time is divided between the ‘real’ world, where a group of amnesiac mythological characters are living ordinary lives in ignorance of who they once were – and the fairytale world they once inhabited, where we see their lives before a witch’s curse transported them to our world.

Okay, fine, but those scenes in the fairytale world?  They’ve already happened.  They’re ancient history.  And it’s very hard to get excited about what a character did years ago, however much it may inform and shape their present, when we’d rather be seeing what they’re doing here and now.  Especially when the here and now is as fascinating as “a bunch of people live in ignorance of their true natures” or  “plane crash survivors struggle to survive on a mysterious island”.

And secondly – although the Once Upon A Time writers work very hard to make those flashbacks illuminating and dramatic  – there’s always the possibility that extended flashbacks are just a lazy way of conveying character traits, flaws and strengths that the writer should actually be showing us in the present.  What’s stronger: flashing back to show us the hero lost a sibling in childhood, or seeing him here and now, still unable to enter a hospital because he’s so weighed down by bad memories?  To my mind, the present always trumps the past.  It feels more real, more immediate, the stakes are higher and the outcome of each scene less certain.

So, over to you.  Am I wrong on this?  Has Lost made extended flashbacks showing the key moments of a character’s life a legitimate storytelling technique – or does it annoy you as much as it annoys me?

The Same, But Different

Well into the first draft of my new spec script, and tackling an interesting problem.  Because of the nature of the story – two people on the run over the course of one frantic night – the Protagonist and the Attractor spend almost all the movie together.  They want the same thing, they’re pursuing the same evidence, so they rarely have reason to split up –

But two characters doing exactly the same thing is dramatic death.  Either one of them is doing something and the one is watching, or they’re both doing and saying the same thing.  Either way, one of them feels redundant.  And because your instinct is (quite correctly) to give the meat of the story to the Protagonist, the Attractor just stands around telling him how clever he is, and looking pretty.  A character who starts off smart, rebellious and opinionated slowly dissolves into eye candy, purely through a lack of independent things to do and say.

So how do I avoid turning one of my leads into a weak, redundant character?  I’m starting to think the key is to give any two characters who spend a lot of time together  different but complimentary objectives.

So, say your movie’s about a cop and a DA who want to expose police corruption.  Make the cop’s objective to find the corrupt officer who gunned down his partner, and the DA’s objective to expose and prosecute the entire network of corrupt officers in this precinct.

Now, although they’re headed in the same direction, they’ll be chasing slightly different evidence, talking to different people, prioritising different elements of the case.

And most  importantly of all – now they have slightly different objectives, they can come into conflict about them.  The cop wants to kill the man who killed his partner; the DA views this man as a vital witness who must be kept alive.  Now they have to argue out the morals and the practicalities of their situation, dramatise the theme of your story in their actions.  Instant conflict – and conflict is what drama’s all about.

So, how can you give each of your main characters a slightly different objective, creating independent action and conflict, while maintaining the overall through-line of your story?

Things I Learned From… Sons Of Anarchy

So, season four of Sons Of Anarchy has just aired in the UK, and we SAMCRO fans are still catching our breath after that shocking finale.  But, shock reversals and big finishes aside, we can learn a lot from this series about engaging an audience in a story world that lacks conventionally ‘likeable’ characters.

Producers and script editors talk a lot about characters being likeable.  Whether your main character’s a saint or a murderer, there should be something about him that the audience can bond with, admire or envy.  The Man With No Name may be a cold-blooded killer, but he defends the weak and the helpless when no one else will.  James Bond is a heartless womanizer, but he’s handsome, rich and sophisticated.  A New York Mafia boss may be a criminal, but he’s just trying to get by in a corrupt, greedy society that discriminates against Italian immigrants.  And so on.

So where’s the likeability in Sons Of Anarchy?  Well…  The gang members are criminal, racist, occasionally misogynist, violent and deeply amoral.  The female characters may not resort to violence as much, but they’re manipulative, selfish, and emotionally cruel, often to each other.  The cops are corrupt or working their own strange angles, the locals are out for money and power, and the one “legitimate” industry that features heavily in the action is a porn movie business.

Okay, that didn’t work.  Quick, let’s find some redeeming features!

The characters must love their families, right?  Well, a lot of them do, but that doesn’t seem to stop them committing acts that could get them jailed or bring danger to their loved ones.  And personal relationships are pretty rocky, too.  Domestic violence, father-son rivalry, mothers manipulating daughters-in-law, and lies, lies, lies.  Family ties are not a positive influence in this show.  When someone mentions ‘family’, they’re as likely to be using it to pressure someone into a crime as to be inviting them to a pot roast.

Okay.  Maybe they’re loyal to each other?  That’s what a gang’s about, right – a surrogate family?

Actually, loyalty to the club, or to each other, is in pretty short supply.  Characters have betrayed each other out of sexual jealousy, fear of jail, fear that the other person betrayed them first, and fear that their own crimes would be exposed to the others.  The club president has left a trail of violence trying to keep his past actions secret, and been violently ousted by his own step-son.  No one’s really come out of this looking good on the loyalty front.

So why are we still watching?  Why are we fascinated by these characters?  Why do we care about their fates?

Two things, I think.  Firstly, Kurt Sutter and his team of writers understand the power of what some screenwriting gurus call “the freedom to act”.

Most of us don’t have the freedom to act in our daily lives.  We daren’t tell our boss what we really think of him, we’re scared to ask out that girl we like, we know we’re never going to sell the house and move to New Zealand like we’ve always wanted.  We’re constrained by politeness and social rules.

This is why fictional characters who have the freedom to act – who do what they want and don’t care about the consequences – are enormously attractive to us.  Lester in American Beauty starts telling his boss and his family exactly what he thinks, and we love him for it.  Dirty Harry takes down the bad guys, and to hell with the regulations – and we love him for it.

The characters in Sons Of Anarchy have absolute freedom to act.  They’re outside the law, outside the conventions of society, and that’s the way they like things.  If they want something, as individuals or as a group, they go get it.  Sometimes it blows up in their face, but at least they had the courage and the single-mindedness to try.  The Sons are trying to put their idea of a better world into action.  It might not be our idea of a better world, but we admire them for acting on their desires.

And secondly, Sutter and his team have sold us on the faded dream that SAMCRO represents.  The 60’s-influenced ideal of no rules, no conformity, just like-minded individuals living in their own way, outside conventional society.  The Sons have fallen a long way from that, but we see the echo of John Teller’s dream in everything they do – and we long to see them return to that lost golden age, become the unequivocal heroes that we like to imagine they once were.  And as long as we think there’s a chance of that, we’ll keep watching.

The Most Useful Question In Screenwriting

The most useful question you can ever ask yourself about the events of your story is – why now?

If you’re writing about an adopted child searching for their real parents, why did they start searching at this moment, and not last year, or in ten years time?  If terrorists are trying to kill the president –  why did they choose today, this speech, this location?  Why does the bank robbery have to happen this week?  Why is it imperative that the hero and heroine realize how much they love each other before the end of the movie?

Why are these events happening within this timeframe?

There is no plot that can’t be strengthened by finding a meaningful answer to this question, and no character that won’t be more interesting once you put a time limit on their actions.

The Two Episode Rule

This is my own personal rule for television episodes, and I’ve never heard anyone else say anything remotely like it –  but I think implementing it in all TV drama would improve almost every series no end.

The two episode rule says:  never base an episode on a part of your character’s history that you didn’t introduce, or at least hint at, in the first two episodes.

Let me give you an example.  One of the great TV plot clichés, particularly in American TV,  is that episode where the main character’s estranged father turns up.  Yeah, you know the one. Dad appears at the end of the teaser: they don’t get on, they argue for a while, have a big showdown, and then they make up in time for the closing credits.

Those episodes never work.  And one of the main reasons  (apart from being a cliché, and trying to solve a huge family problem in an unrealistic amount of screen time)  is that the main character has invariably never mentioned that they don’t get on with their father.  They’ve probably never even mentioned whether their father is alive or dead.  The subject has never seemed remotely important before.

And then out of nowhere, the viewers are expected to accept that they have this severely dysfunctional relationship that they never bothered to mention, and which, as far as we can see, has never affected their behaviour or personality in any way.

In contrast, the American supernatural detective series Angel spent nearly four seasons   slowly feeding in hints that one of the main characters had been bullied and emotionally abused by his father throughout his childhood, and was still struggling with the after-effects.  A line here, a moment there… Emotionally crippled by all this, the character went through some extremely dark times, did some bad things, and ultimately came out a stronger, better person –

And then his father appears for an episode.  Can you imagine how powerful that confrontation was?  And it works because it’s grounded in what we already know of this character.   We know this relationship is important to him, we’ve seen the effect it’s had on his life –  and now we’re seeing not a cliched plot-of-the-week, but a make or break moment for someone we care about.

Of course, I’m not saying you can never mention anything that wasn’t established in the first two episodes.  With characters as with real people, we discover new things about them all the time.  It may take a while to discover that they preferred hockey to netball, or that they hate chocolate, or whatever.

But you’re not likely to want to build an entire episode around them not liking chocolate.  What we’re talking about with the two episode rule are the important things –  the key character traits, the key relationships, the key desires and dreams.  The things about your character that are likely to drive an entire episode, even an entire ongoing plot thread.

And when we say  “established” in those first two episodes, that doesn’t mean everything has to be spelled out in capital letters.  The “establishing” could be something as simple as making it clear that your female forensic scientist has difficulty forming relationships, and she’s been single for years.

What have you established there?   Maybe that she’s mildly autistic – or that she’s too ambitious and devoted to her job to care about love –  or that she was raped and is suffering the emotional fallout. Or a thousand and one other things, I expect.

But when you finally write the episode revealing the reason, everyone will subconsciously think,   “Of course! That’s why she’s so distant and keeps pushing people away…”

You don’t have to lay it all out on a plate for the audience.  In fact, your series will be more effective if you don’t.  Keep them curious, keep them interested.  But there has to be a character framework there in those first couple of episodes, a set of first impressions; the writer’s gut reactions to the character, almost.  They’re what stops you being tempted to make them act out of character, what stops you forcing them to be things they could never be.  They’re the ring-fence holding in all the potential this new, unformed character has.  And they should all be in those first two episodes.

Things I Learned From… The Cold Light Of Day

Just back from seeing The Cold Light Of Day, a thriller that seems to have sneaked into cinemas without much fanfare. It’s good enjoyable fun, very much in the Bourne mould but with a few nice reversals and a splendidly slippery operative played by Sigourney Weaver.

However, it does suffer slightly from that perennial curse of the action movie, the Surprisingly Proficient Hero. Henry Cavill’s business consultant protagonist shows an extraordinary capacity for jumping off roofs, shooting accurately while under fire, and performing evasive driving manoeuvres – to the point where an agent at the end of the movie actually comments on his skills. (Mind you, that same agent describes another patently duplicitous character as ”an honest man”, so I’m not trusting his judgement…)

I’m not really saying this as a criticism of The Cold Light Of Day – there are far worse offenders – but it did get me thinking about the two types of action movies, and how the first makes life difficult for the second.

The first type of action movie is the This Time It’s Personal movie. It involves a character with an appropriate skillset – cop, spy, assassin, military of some kind – being drawn into their normal kind of work, but with dramatically raised stakes, either because the danger is bigger than normal, or because it’s a personal threat to our protagonist’s happiness.

Die Hard is a classic This Time It’s Personal. John Maclane is a cop, perfectly capable of arresting hostage-asking robbers – but today, the stakes are raised. Not only is he the only cop inside the building (bigger danger) but his wife is a hostage (personal stakes).  Other examples: Taken, the Bournes, the Bonds, Haywire,  Seven, and most superhero movies that aren’t origin stories.

The advantage, obviously, is that it gives you a hero with skills, abilities and knowledge that you can use to amp up the action and the tension. You can throw more obstacles, more setbacks and more pain at your protagonist than any average person could take, because we know she’s trained to take it, and therefore we’ll accept that she can survive it and even win in the end.

The disadvantage is that it’s harder to create tension when your character is clearly well within their depth than when they’re way out of it. The personal stakes help, but you’re going to have to come up with plausible reasons why your hero struggles, suffers, and occasionally loses one round of the battle, in order to maintain the dramatic tension.

The second kind of action movie, the category The Cold Light Of Day fits into, might be called the Why Me story. An ordinary person finds themselves plunged into a situation way outside their normal lives, and has to learn fast, find allies, and use their intelligence and unrelated skills creatively in order to survive.

Why Me action movies include Three Days Of The Condor, The Thirty-Nine Steps, North By North-West, and superhero origin movies. (The Bourne Identity flirts with this model, but from the moment Bourne takes out the Swiss cops who find him sleeping rough in the park, we know this is a This Time It’s Personal. Even if he doesn’t.)

The dramatic advantage to this model is obvious – raised tension. This isn’t James Bond fighting Mossad or the FSB, it’s some ordinary businessman, housewife, or teenager. We feel their lives are really at risk in a way we wouldn’t if they were a ’professional’.

But the dramatic problem – the problem that presumably drove The Cold Light Of Day writers Scott Wiper and John Petro to stretch their protagonist’s skillset – is that the audience has been conditioned by This Time It’s Personal movies to expect an unrealistic level of heroism.  We expect the central character in an action movie – whoever he is – to leap off buildings, shoot more accurately than the well-trained bad guys, survive car chases, foot chases, and escape from custody. Why? Because those guys in This Time It’s Personal movies do.

If a writer portrays an ordinary person in a Why Me movie acting like an ordinary person would – even like a determined, resourceful ordinary person with considerable courage – they run the risk of appearing to create a ”weak” hero.  In other words, action movies have no room for ordinary protagonists any more.

I think that’s a pity. There must be a way to construct a workable Why Me movie with a more authentic, ’ordinary’ hero who succeeds through ingenuity and courage rather than through unlikely and unrealistic skills. Any thoughts?