Character development has always been the thing I find it hardest to do up front. Most of my characters have developed slowly over the life of the script, which is fine when you’re writing a spec with no one to answer to but yourself – but a little awkward when your script editor or producer has a thousand perfectly justified questions for which you have no answers!
So for my next spec, I’m making a concerted effort to work on the characters while I’m still in the brainstorming stage – that is, while I’m gathering random thoughts, scraps of dialogue, photos, and scribbled notes, assembling the fragments of my idea, but before any real decisions have been made.
One way I’m using is to ask myself questions about the characters. Hardly a new idea – it’s recommended by practically every writing guru – but it’s a technique I’ve never liked much until now. Turns out the key to getting it to work is – ask the right questions.
Our immediate instinct is to ask our characters the kinds of questions we’d ask someone we’d just been introduced to. Where are you from, are you married, do you have children, what do you do…
These are the wrong questions. For a start, they’ll largely be dictated by the plot: the action hero whose daughter is kidnapped has to be a father, and probably a husband or divorcee, whereas the heroine of a rom-con is unlikely to be happily married.
But the main problem is, the answers these questions generate are not specific to your character. Thousands of people live in London or New York or Lahore; most people are probably in a relationship most of the time; someone’s job doesn’t actually tell you that much about them.
No, our job as writers is to ask the questions we wouldn’t ever dare ask a new acquaintance. To demand to know the kinds of things about them that, in real life, would have to be freely offered, if they were ever shared at all.
One thing I’m finding particularly useful is to concentrate on questions that bring to mind events or memories from your character’s life. For example, “Last time you took someone on a date, where did you go and what did you do?” or “What subject or skill did you go out of your way to learn?”
After all, we’re storytellers, and once we start envisaging that wonderful (or disastrous) date, or visualising our character aged twelve, hanging round the neighbourhood chop shop to learn how to ring cars, we’re creating a story.
Stories stick in our heads better than dry facts – they stick in everyone’s heads, that’s why society evolved them, but we should be even more susceptible to them than most. Stories illustrate character, embody ways of thinking and acting, showcase dialogue, and place our characters in action so we can see who they really are. Just like your script is going to.
Also, using questions to create stories allows us to dig into our characters from the outside in. Rather than deciding that a character is shy, then giving him external (possibly cliched) characteristics that show that, we can let him loose in a situation, and find out whether he really is shy, or whether something else is going on.
So when you’re digging into your characters, look for questions about them that will lead to stories from their past or present, and that’s where you’ll really start to discover them.
Ah, franchises. Tricky business. Get them right, and you’re rolling in money; get them wrong, and you’re a laughing stock. But like it or not, they’ve been the lifeblood of Hollywood for thirty or forty years, and I don’t see it changing any time soon. So we all need to learn how to get to grips with them.
One of the skills we’re going to need is the ability to effectively reboot or revitalize a franchise that’s lost a major player – a name actor who’s heavily identified with the franchise’s success (say, Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossible series), or a director credited with keeping a consistent tone and maintaining quality across installments (Christopher Nolan and the Batman trilogy).
The Bourne franchise has now lost its lead actor and star director, and as Lady Bracknell might have put it, to lose one is a misfortune, but to lose both looks like carelessness. What they do have is long-term franchise screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who also steps in as director for this installment. So what decisions has Gilroy made while reinventing the franchise, and how have they turned out for him?
A few spoilers, obviously…
Aaron Cross is not Jason Bourne. No memory loss, no emotional trauma, product of a very different program, Cross is a clean break with the past. In principle, an excellent choice. No one wants to see another actor, however talented, rehashing exactly the same emotional journey as Bourne.
The problem is that Bourne’s intriguing and often moving journey to recover his true self and atone for his past is replaced by… well, I’m not really sure. Cross seems to be planning to break free of the program long before it turns on him – why would he hide his meds and try to obtain replacements, unless he was trying to build up a surplus so he could abscond? – but we’re never sure why. Forced on the run, he has excellent outer motivations – stay alive, maintain his enhanced abilities – but his inner desires and thought processes remain obtuse, and that’s a major story problem. We need to understand what the character wants and why (even if he doesn’t!), what his inner journey is, or how can we measure his success or failure?
There’s a shift towards a new sub-genre. While changing genre between installments is risky (for every Alien/ Aliens, there’s a Highlander/ Highlander 2), a shift within the genre can revitalize a flagging franchise. The genetic enhancement plot shifts us from espionage thriller to scientific thriller, and the plot structure sticks firmly within this new sub-genre; I think I’m right in saying that Cross engages in no on-screen espionage of any sort.
Does it work? I quite like it. The science is reasonably solid, it seems like a plausible development for ‘the program’ to move onto after Treadstone, and it opens up new story and action possibilities. Unfortunately, again, Gilroy doesn’t exploit it as well as he might. Are Cross’ physical and mental abilities shown to be far in excess of Bourne’s? Well, not really. Which leads me to my next point…
There’s a real danger to Cross’ survival and mental health. Unfortunately, there’s no way dramatically to go there. Yup, I’m talking about the blue pill and Cross’ baseline IQ. Potentially, this is a really interesting idea – Flowers For Algernon territory, great dramatic stuff. But there are some things that even the greatest actors in the world can’t pull off, and suffering a catastrophic diminishment of IQ in the middle of an action movie is probably one of them.
Here’s the thing. Flowers For Algernon works as a story because we meet and empathize with Charlie before his intelligence is enhanced, and follow him through the story – and because that’s what the book is about. We came expecting that. The problem is, no one goes to an action movie to watch the hero abruptly get – to put it crudely – a hell of a lot dumber. The moment Cross’ mental abilities start to crumble, the premise of the story crumbles with them. We jump plot templates from super-spy to King Kong, or more accurately, Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk: a dumb but powerful creature on the run, paired up with a smart and compassionate woman. Which is fine, but it’s not what the audience came for. And promising one thing and delivering another is the fastest way to disappoint your audience and ensure bad word-of-mouth for your movie.
I think Gilroy’s smart enough to know he can never allow Cross to lose his mental enhancements. He just teases us with the possibility. Which means we have a major threat to Cross – apart from assassination by Agency goons, the only real threat – but we’re never going to go there. So it’s false jeopardy. So what’s the point?
What’s my point in all this? If there’s one thing I’m realizing about story, it’s that you have to push every idea to its limit – not just in your head, but on the page.
As a new writer, we all have the urge to cram our scripts with every cool idea we’ve ever had, and every fun character we can think of. In fact, what we need is to find that one idea that forms the core of our story, dig into it and explore every facet of it, and work it into every scene of our script. The same with character; you don’t need dozens of cool characters, you need to choose four or five and explore them, test them, push them to their limits and force them to show us who they really are.
Less really is more – if you get everything you can out of it.
I’ve been thinking a bit about screenplay structure recently. Particularly, about something I tend to find happening to stories as I get into the final stages, the last two or three drafts. The fact that the structure and the carefully chosen turning points seem to fade away.
What I mean is this. After a bit of initial brainstorming and throwing random ideas around to see what emerges, my first treatments and drafts are very focused on putting the structural elements in the right places. My inciting incident has to be here, and not there or there. My ‘all is lost’ moment had better be right at the end of Act Two, or else. I want eight sequences, I want them all roughly the same length, and I want them in the right order.
But after a few drafts, once I’ve got the story into some kind of shape, I start to forget exactly what I was calling my inciting incident, let alone what page it’s on. I’m not too bothered about the dividing lines between sequences, or the fact that the dividing line between them is a bit vague. There’s a bit between sequences three and four that isn’t really part of either, and I don’t even care.
Is that normal? What’s going on there?
Here’s what I think.
Screenplay structure is a map. It tells you which things to look out for in order to get where you want to go. When you’re making a journey for the first time – writing that treatment or that first or second draft – a map is incredibly important if you want to get where you’re going with reasonable speed and efficiency.
But a map is just a way of looking at the terrain. It’s not part of the, and the terrain exists even without the map. The grid reference and the compass bearing aren’t part of the hill – they’re a way of understanding the hill.
And once you know the way without the map, that way of understanding the terrain is unnecessary.
So it’s perfectly natural for the labels we use to identify parts of our screenplay to drop away as we become more familiar with the story, because now we’re not looking at the map. We’re understanding the story as a whole, navigating by eye and ear through it, appreciating it in a new way.
So maybe we shouldn’t get too overexcited about those structural labels. If they’re useful to you as you explore the new and alien landscape of your story, use them. If not, don’t. They’re only a temporary reference anyway. Soon, you’ll know the story landscape for real.
Superheroes make for great movies. The mythic figures of our time, demi-gods in lycra, they serve the same dramatic purposes as ancient heroes – wish fulfillment, role models, inspirations, a reassurance in a dark world that there are people who do the right thing and take responsibility for making the world a better place.
Of course, like ancient heroes, they have their dark side. They’re self-selected, unaccountable, and they frequently seek to overcome violence with violence, a tactic that’s usually spectacularly unsuccessful in the real world. As contrived as the “superhero loses his mind and turns evil!” storyline can sometimes seem, it embodies a real truth: the hero is only ever a few steps away from becoming the villain.
But there’s something else about superheroes that we as writers ought to bear in mind: something that might go some way to explaining why some superhero movies fail and others are huge hits.
Superheroes can be utterly unsympathetic figures, because they’re not like us.
The mythic hero is a distant figure, a divine being on a pedestal. His abilities, his personality, his morals and his ethical concerns are very different to ours. We may admire him, but we can never be like him.
Which is why – unlike the great heroes of the Greek, Roman and Norse pantheons, and most cultures around the world – superheroes have alter-egos. Cover identities. Human selves, effectively. And the greater the disconnect between the alter-ego and the hero, the more effective the character – and, off the top of my head, the more successful the film.
Who are the two most popular comic-book superheroes? Batman and Superman, both of whom have cover identities very much at odds with their costumed selves. Big disconnect = big box office. Now let’s take Green Lantern – who, at least as portrayed in the recent film, was very much the same reckless, immature person, in or out of the mask. Zero disconnect = so-so reviews and disappointing box office.
This understanding goes back as far as the 1960’s, at least in comic books. Marvel’s heroes are deliberately ordinary, young, and physically imposing: teenagers, nerds, scientists. Firmly at odds with their abilities and skills, And in film form, Marvel’s heroes have consistently outperformed DC’s heroes at the box office (though identifiable alter-egos are far from the only reason for that!)
Okay, you’re about to say Iron Man disproves my theory, aren’t you? Well, I would say he doesn’t. Tony Stark may think he’s the same swaggering badass in the suit and out of it, but I’d assert that out of it, he’s damaged, careless of others’ feelings, self-centered, and self-indulgent. In the suit, he can suppress that side of himself just long enough to be a hero. Indeed, The Avengers revolves thematically around the idea of consciously “putting on the suit”; becoming, at least for a few glorious moments, the best ‘you’ that you can be.
So, if you ever find yourself writing a mythic hero, think for a moment about who she is when she takes off the mask. The greater the change she undergoes, the better your story.
It used to be that the place for a complex story universe was on television. Multiple characters, interwoven stories, a rich social, economic and political culture, a window on the problems and triumphs of a whole society instead of one or two representative characters – that’s television. If you don’t believe me, try imagining The Wire as a two-hour movie…
One of the positive things the rise of the movie franchise has achieved is the opening up of cinema to wider story universes. It’s no accident that one of the first summer blockbusters was Star Wars, with it’s rich tapestry of character, backstory and alien worlds. The Indiana Jones movies are a deliberate throwback to the Saturday Morning Serial – essentially, television before television existed – and though they’re not serialized, they also have that sense of being of a continuing adventure.
In the last decade or so, the move towards the franchise has gathered pace. Off the top of my head, I can name The Lord Of The Rings, The Matrix, the Batman trilogy, the Bourne movies, Transformers, and perhaps the ultimate example, the cluster of individual Marvel Studios movies leading up to The Avengers. And the failed attempts to start major franchises would take all day to list!
There are even flashes of ingenuity to be spotted among the franchising sausage machine. The Bourne Legacy initially felt like flogging a dead franchise, but advance reports suggest that the film runs concurrently with The Bourne Ultimatum, with characters and plotlines moving between the two films in the manner of an avant-garde multi-stranded drama. Whether it works remains to be seen, but it’s a fascinating use of the franchise format.
So, what message can we as writers take from this? It’s that complex story universes are the way to go, right? Come up with a sprawling world full of locations, characters, backstories and potential drama, and you can spend the next ten years digging into it on film, right?
Strangely, no. The message we should be learning is not to start with the universe. Keep it small. Stick with the character, their want and their need, and the one situation they find themselves in right now.
One thing I’ve learned from bringing Wolfblood to the small screen is that, in an ongoing series, you never pin down any element of the story until you have to. For example, one of the characters was separated from their parents at a young age. When we needed that character’s mother, we sat down and created her. We’ve had no use for the father yet, so we’ve made no decisions about him.
Why? Because every time you make a decision about your story universe, you close off other possibilities. If we’d had someone say on screen that this character’s father was a Glaswegian bricklayer, that’s fine – until we reach an episode where we could have got a really good story out of him being, I dunno, the British Ambassador to Jamaica. But now that story could never happen, because we’d written ourselves into a corner for the sake of some spurious ‘completeness’.
Define elements of your wider story universe when they’re useful to you, when they have a dramatic weight and a meaning, and not before.
And secondly, writers who think too broadly about their wider universe end up not concentrating on what’s right in front of them – the chance to make this one movie as good, as rich, as emotionally compelling as it possibly can be. And if this one movie isn’t utterly brilliant, those sequels you’ve so loving planned will never happen.
Assuming you don’t actually kill your hero or have certain types of twist ending, a good movie written without any thought of a sequel can usually spawn one – and a good one-off story will always have the potential to expand into a complex story universe. Just make that first installment as good as you can, and the rest will take care of itself.
Christopher Nolan deeply distrusts the traditional heroic narrative. His first two features, Following and Memento, both sent protagonists on journeys that turned out to lead only to uncertainty, manipulation and possible madness. His next film, Insomnia, which I believe is the only feature he’s directed but hasn’t been involved in the writing/ early development of, touches on those familiar ideas in the context of a detective story.
The Prestige consciously plays with the hero’s journey to a degree rarely seen in film: we dart about in time, following two characters’ stories through diaries, personal testimony at a trial, memory and real life. Angier appears to be the protagonist, because he appears to be the most active character – he goes on an elaborate physical and scientific journey to gain hidden knowledge, and pays a terrible price – but by the end of the film, a shift in perspective leaves us wondering if Borden was actually the protagonist all alone.
Inception has a single identifiable protagonist, but the journey Cobb goes on is non-linear, perhaps even backwards – into his own inner self and back to face the greatest fear of his life. As Ariadne warns him, “… as we go deeper into Fischer, we’re also going deeper into you. And I’m not sure we’re going to like what we find.”
So how does this play out in Nolan’s Batman trilogy? Batman Begins plays with time and space, but no more so than many similar epic narratives, and it does have a single identifiable protagonist: Bruce Wayne. He undergoes a physical journey that becomes a quest for an identity he can live with: neither the rich asshole nor the wounded orphan, but someone who has something to offer to the world. (Even if that’s extra-judicial violence. Well, no one ever said the guy was sane.)
The Dark Knight takes a bold narrative step away from the usual superhero conventions. If a first superhero film is usually about becoming the hero, the second is usually about being the hero – the tension between the two identities, the demands of real life, the physical toll of a double life. If the first movie is about Bruce Wayne, the second should be fully “about” Batman.
But that’s not Nolan’s approach at all. The Dark Knight is a movie not about Batman, but about the idea of Batman. The ripple effect that the presence of a superhero has on the entire society he operates in; the impact on the police, the judiciary, the mayor, the rich and the poor. And, of course, the “escalation” effect on crime and the rise of supervillains.
It’s a remarkable way to tell a movie, and Nolan uses the technique incredibly effectively. Perhaps because, at the centre of the story, he retains a lightly sketched but emotionally powerful “being the hero” story. Bruce Wayne wants to hang up his cape and cowl and be with the woman he loves, but the criminal world that he’s unwittingly empowered (by forcing them to turn to the Joker) leads to her death. So far, so traditional – though it’s given tremendous irony by our knowledge that she’d already decided to marry someone else, a fact he won’t know until it’s too late and will never fully accept.
So, arriving at the final part of his trilogy, how will Nolan handle his problems with protagonists?
I’d venture that the protagonist of The Dark Knight Rises is neither Bruce Wayne or Batman. It’s young cop John Blake. He’s the one who’s growing, learning, changing. Learning that Commissioner Gordon kept Harvey Dent’s crimes from the public and let Batman take the rap. Seeing fellow cops prepared to fire on kids rather than accept his word and let this cross the bridge to safety. Seeing the man who works outside the ‘structures’ that keep coming up in dialogue save the city, when the authorities were paralysed by red tape and fear of responsibility.
Surprisingly, given how hard he works to return to the fray and defeat Bane, Bruce Wayne’s journey is not towards Batman, but away from him. He’s already ceased to be Batman, in any real sense, but as Alfred says “You hung up your cape and your cowl, but you never moved on. You never found a life.” He has to go back through the identity he’s shed, take up the burden he’s put aside, in order to get free of it – and pass it on someone who may be better placed to bear it.
As Cobb says in Inception, “Downwards is the only way forwards”, which could be a tagline for pretty much any movie Nolan’s ever directed…
The question is, does it work? I’m not sure. The Dark Knight Rises is a movie with a broad social, political and philosophical canvas, stuffed with characters old and new, riddled with deception, convoluted plans and false identities. What it needs most of all is a centre – a still point around which all of this can revolve, a character with the complexity and moral authority to hold this extraordinary universe together. And it feels to me that what Nolan has chosen to do with Wayne and Blake doesn’t – can’t – deliver that. It’s a personal journey fractionally out of step with the world it’s embedded in, and we can feel the join.
So there’s our lesson. The protagonist and his journey have to be equal to the weight of the universe you place around them.
I think Nolan’s achievements in this trilogy are extraordinary (and I’m a very fussy Batman fan…) It’s just a pity than his desire to deconstruct the hero’s journey left The Dark Knight Rises a notch or two short of perfection.