How Many Is Too Many?

So I saw The Avengers: Age Of Ultron yesterday. Detailed thoughts on that will have to wait until the film has opened worldwide, but one thing it did get me thinking was – how many main characters is too many?

Age Of Ultron has eight, maybe nine, lead characters including the villain, significant cameos by another five, and walk-ons from another half dozen or so, familiar and unfamiliar. That’s a lot of people to get your heads round!

So is there a definite limit to how many main characters an audience can deal with? Are there particular factors that affect that? Here are a few thoughts…

Familiarity helps. Obviously a franchise has it easier in this area, because the audience will remember some of those characters from the last movie. You may want to remind people of their core characteristics, but at least you don’t have to establish who they are and how they behave from the ground up.

Can you tell them apart at a glance? Film is a visual medium, and keeping your characters visually distinct will help the audience remember who’s who. (Yet another compelling argument for more women and people of colour in movies!)

Again, comic books have an advantage here. Many of those bold, bright superhero costumes originated in a time when comics were throwaway entertainment printed on rough paper with cheap ink, and however good the original artwork, often the only way to tell the characters apart once it was printed was by their uniforms.

This suggests that setting also has a bearing on how many characters you can use. If you’re writing about the inhabitants of a town, all different ages, races and income brackets, you should be able to have more main characters that if your characters are all nuns, or soldiers, all dressed the same and possibly of similar age and background.

Can you divide your characters into groups? Not putting all your characters on screen together all the time will help the audience get to know them as individuals. The Avengers often split down into teams according to their functions: we might see Black Widow and Hawkeye being spies, or Stark and Banner being science bros in the lab.

But you’re going to want to keep all your characters busy all the time, and there’s a limit to how many plot lines you can run simultaneously. In the all-action finale, we can probably keep track of three teams doing different things to save the world, and any team that’s more than three or four members will have difficulty keeping them all busy…

Do all your characters have a different motivation? Everyone in a movie may want the same thing, but they should want it for different reasons. And while in real life a thousand people may each have fractionally different motivations for making the same decision, on screen there’s a limit to how many distinct motivations and mindsets we have time to explore.

In The Avengers, everyone wants to stop Loki, but for different reasons. Steve Rogers has seen what the Tesseract can do; Tony Stark is as much trying to work out what SHIELD is up to as what Loki’s planning. Bruce Banner doesn’t really want to be involved, but he knows they can’t do it without him. Natasha Romanov is trying to save her dearest friend. Thor wants to save his brother, though he isn’t even sure that’s possible.

So think about how many different motivations for being involved you have room to explore. If you have three characters who really want exactly the same thing, they probably need to be conflated into one character…

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Things I Learned From… Daredevil

Being laid up sick, I watched Netflix’s new Daredevil TV series over the weekend. Now, a lot of extremely valid things have been said by others about the clichéd gender roles of the main characters, the lack of females in bit parts, and the nebulous nature of Hell’s Kitchen as a community. So I’ll leave those alone for the time being.

But one writing-related thing that occurred to me is – one of the hardest things to do when adapting source material is to change the time period it’s set in. Not because it’s hard to add modern technology or modern language. Nor because different presidents, wars and economic crashes will need to be referenced. There are always plenty of those to choose from.

No, the difficulty with moving a story from one decade to another is that the emotional meaning of things changes.

For example: if a character in the 1950’s buys a TV, they’re buying the future. Access to the shiny modern world of media, information, mass culture. If a character in 2015 buys a TV, it’s just another electronic box to add to the many in his house – and he’s probably only going to use it to play Xbox anyway!

The Daredevil that’s been transferred to our screens is supposedly taking place right now, but the emotional meaning of the stories is mired in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. They’re full of concepts and story elements that have totally changed meaning.

Boxing, for example. Fighting your way to fame and fortune was once the only way for a working-class boy to get out of the ghetto – but now boxing is a niche sport regarded with abhorrence by some. The athletes have gone to MMA instead, and the big money’s in televised wrestlers in gold lycra.

And how about newspapers? The series pays lip service to the idea that bloggers are taking over and print journalism is struggling, but the idea that a small daily newspaper could still survive without being a loss-making part of a larger conglomerate is hard to believe. Now, newspapers are what your grandparents’ generation read (and alas, may well die with them).

If you don’t believe me, try this simple test. Without thinking about it at all, acting on instinct and what you’ve seen on TV – what year did Matt Murdoch’s father die?

I would have guessed 1965. 1970 at the most. From the flashback scenes, from the idea of crooked bets and boxers taking a dive for the mob… The Sixties, right?

But Matt was what, eight to ten years old in those flashbacks? And as a newly qualified attorney, he surely can’t be aged over thirty now…

Which means his father died in approximately 1995.

Did any of those flashbacks feel like 1995 to you? The year of the Oklahoma truck bombing, Toy Story and Batman Forever at the cinema, the first DVDs, and Windows 95? I’m thinking not…

Well, you may say, does any of this matter?

I think it does. Because when you aren’t carefully examining what assumptions and emotional meanings you’re bringing with you from the source material, then you’re likely to bring assumptions you never meant to.

Does Matt have no significant female figures in his childhood because the writers have unthinkingly imported the dated idea that only men can be mentors? Do the women in his present fulfill highly gendered roles – secretary, researcher, nurse (not even a doctor?) – because those were imported, unexamined and un-translated into modern equivalents, from the source material?

Comic book heroes are like Robin Hood or King Arthur: they need to be re-moulded to address the needs of each new generation. Daredevil the television series was under no obligation to stick with any of the comics. Exactly as with Robin Hood and King Arthur, all previous versions remain intact, and there’ll be another version along eventually anyway. They could have addressed the dissonance these details create, but they chose to stick with what was familiar.

So if you ever find yourself adapting source material into a different decade, don’t make the same mistake…

Better Safe Than Sorry

As many of you will have heard on Twitter, Reddit and elsewhere, script storage site Scripped has suffered a system collapse, apparently resulting in the deletion of everything stored there, and has subsequently shut down.
There seem to be a lot of answered questions surrounding the site, its owners, and the technical issues, but there’s one thing that’s very clear – no writer should be relying on one site to store their work, especially one outside their control.
It may seem boring, but paying attention to practicalities is going to save you a lot of time and effort at some point. So what are some of the practical steps you should be taking to safeguard your work and your screenwriting career?

Back-ups. They don’t have to be expensive or complicated. I have several years of work backed up on two separate pen drives, and they’re extremely affordable now. If nothing else, print a copy and keep it safe. Retyping from a hard copy is a nuisance, but it’s better than losing work.

Organise drafts. The last thing you want is to save an old draft over the top of a newer one. Come up with a system to differentiate between drafts – date, draft number, both – and stick to it.

Auto-backups are great. Losing the last half-hour’s work because you didn’t hit save is the last thing you want at the end of a long day. Many programs can be set to save work automatically every five minutes without interrupting your workflow, so make sure you turn that feature on.

Have a system for non-draft material too. Losing notes, scribbles and research material can slow you down too, so come up with a system to keep each project separate, contained and safe.

Defunct projects don’t always stay defunct. That script you half-finished five years ago but couldn’t quite crack? You may work out how to turn it into a sure-fire hit any day now. So make sure old projects don’t get deleted and thrown away, accidentally or deliberately.

Upgrades are dangerous. I lost several scripts when upgrading from an old desktop to my first laptop. Still don’t really know how! So ensure everything that’s supposed to move gets moved…

Don’t rely on others to keep back-ups for you! Your producers, your agent, sites like Scripped – don’t assume they’re going to be able to save your ass if you lose a draft. They might, but then again they might not – and you’re going to look like a right idiot having to ask them. Take care of your own scripts, and they will take care of you.