Beware The Fridge Magnet

(with thanks to @abigailb, who came up with the term)

Thank you for coming, everyone! I see we have a good range of female characters here tonight – girlfriends of superheroes, wives and daughters from action movies, and secondary characters from television shows…

Now, we’re all very much aware of the primary danger to all of you – the constant threat of “fridging”, the killing of love interests (invariably female) to motivate the hero to revenge. You’d think villains would have realized this course of action invariably leads to their downfall, and stopped, by now, but I guess if they were smart they wouldn’t be villains…

Anyway, tonight we’ll be talking about a disturbing element of that threat that has recently been identified – the fridge magnet.

That’s right – the hero whose every partner, casual hook-up, or anyone he so much as flirts with, ends up dead.

For many years, the primary danger came from James Bond, and we were at least aware of that – but with the rise of movie franchises, and the increased danger presented by a hero appearing in more than one movie, the danger is now everywhere. From Wolverine to Dominic Torretto, the fridge magnet could now be any male lead in any genre of film.

How can you identify a fridge magnet?

He may be a character whose worth is defined, partly or wholly, by the physical things he possesses – and a woman is just another thing to be possessed, used up, and thrown away.

Or he may be a character whom the audience expect to remain miserable and/or damaged, for whom yet another dead female is a simple shorthand to illustrate that misery.

And having identified him, what can you do?

Go to the writer. Remember, only the writer of your film or television show can save you – by redeveloping your hero and you into characters who have a complex, interesting and ongoing relationship. This will satisfy the audience, filling them with emotions and dilemmas, without resorting to the crude, simplistic device of yet another death.

The writer has doomed you to this fate – but they can save you, and become a better writer in the process…

The Ten-Second Version

I’m currently working on a spy thriller, and near the beginning of the film, our protagonist is presented to a team of spies as their new recruit.

In the first draft, I then launched into a series of tests and trials for her to prove herself worthy of joining the team, and to impress the team leader – establishing the primary relationship of the story, between new recruit and mentor-antagonist.

But that sequence never felt right. It slowed down the narrative. It felt obvious, predictable. It just wasn’t working.

And then this morning, I realized – I need the Ten-Second Version of that sequence. I need the one test, the one question to answer, that will convince the team leader that the protagonist is the only person for the job.

Why? Because near the beginning of a story, the dramatic process is not important – the decisions are.

Once your story is well underway, and especially in the third act, dramatic process – how the protagonist wins – becomes very important indeed. The audience derives enormous pleasure from seeing the protagonist learn from their mistakes, enlist the help of their allies, exploit the villain’s weaknesses and grow into their own power as a hero – and all of that needs to happen through specific, detailed actions.

But early on in the story, the dramatic process doesn’t have all of this emotional weight, and we can take shortcuts to get to the good stuff, especially when it’s near inevitable. (After all, if my protagonist doesn’t get onto the team, there’ll be no story, so it’s not like I can play this for suspense!)

All I need is one good reason why the team leader would accept her, one brief moment of proving herself – and the justification for that decision will play out through the rest of the movie.

So next time you’re struggling with motivating a decision in the first act of your story, consider – do you actually need the Ten-Second Version?

Character and the Audience: The Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow

Yaay, it’s another occasional series! I’m becoming very interested in how certain kinds of characters, particularly those that break the traditional norms of race, gender and sexuality, can change the appeal of a film to an audience. So, assuming I can find enough of them to write about, I shall…

(SPOILER WARNING for Captain America: The Winter Soldier…)

Today’s character type, the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow, takes its name from a twitter comment that, alas, I have long since lost. If you think it was you, let me know who you were talking about, and with which screenwriter, and I’ll be happy to credit you…

The Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow is always male, and he’s that guy who can kill a roomful of people without breaking a sweat – but who is massively emotionally vulnerable, has no social support system, and is incapable of interacting with civilized society. Frequently he’s physically or temporally displaced, and while perfectly adapted to his reality, struggles to map his skills and experiences onto ours.

One great example is Kyle Reese in The Terminator. Reese is perfectly adapted to the future, where killer robots roam and humanity scrabbles to survive and resist. But his skills transfer imperfectly to the 1980’s, and his emotional connection to human savior John Connor, and then John’s mother Sarah, whom he’s come to save, makes him immensely vulnerable and sympathetic.

A more recent, and hugely instructive, example is Bucky Barnes, aka The Winter Soldier, in the eponymous Captain America movie. The Winter Soldier is a human being erased right down to the skull, a bundle of reflexes and conditioning with no memory and no personality – until he encounters the one person with whom he has such a strong enough emotional connection that his true self starts bubbling up…

What interests me about the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow is the character’s immense appeal to the female audience. Captain America: The Winter Soldier has created a massive, and hugely engaged, female audience for Captain America movies that simply didn’t exist before. If you doubt me, search for the fan art and fan fiction… And for all the emphasis on Arnie and on a strong female lead, Kyle Reese was a huge part of The Terminator’s success.

So why are these characters so attractive to the female audience? Two things, I think…

Firstly, they provide female viewers with a double experience – a character they can simultaneously desire, and empathise with.

There’s little common ground between any viewer (male or female) and a traditional muscular action hero, a stuffed shirt quipping his way through gunfights and embracing a ‘girl’ as a prize at the end of the movie. Their skills attract us, but their emotionlessness shuts us out.

(See this excellent post by Alex Epstein for a related examination of why this means that women make better action leads than men… http://complicationsensue.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/cryface.html )

But the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow displays both the “male” physical capability, and the “female” emotional vulnerability, to evoke envy and empathy simultaneously. The audience can share the character’s experiences on all levels.

And secondly: the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow is, of necessity, a character locked into a complex, passionate and constantly evolving relationship. He has an opposite, a partner, a second self without whom he is incomplete.

Kyle Reese needs Sarah Connor’s help to survive as much as she needs his. Where she is weak, he is strong, and vice versa. He’s not a savior, he’s a partner.

And whatever your ‘shipping’ preferences for the Captain America movie universe, there’s no denying that Steve’s relationship with Bucky is the formative, deepest and most vital relationship of his entire life. Indeed, from Captain America: The First Avenger onwards, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have been reshaping the origin story, and Ed Brubaker’s original Winter Soldier storyline, to deepen this connection and increase the ways in which the characters’ lives, feelings and experience mirror one another. They are opposites, mirror images, unbreakably connected to one another, whether you view that connection as having a sexual component or not.

In other words, the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow is a creature of relationships. It’s a cliché to say female viewers embrace the relationships in a movie rather than just the ‘cool’ stuff, but it’s true –

And you know what? Male viewers love relationships too. They just don’t define their reactions in the same way. Any male viewer who says “Wasn’t it cool when Cap faced the Winter Soldier on the helicarrier?” is reacting to exactly the same character points as a female viewer talking about the tragic emotions of the ending. They’re just using different terminology.

So what’s my point here? My point is that Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrows bring in a female audience for movies that are traditionally male (and yes, that’s a generalization anyway, but…) without ever alienating the male audience.

So why isn’t there one in every action, adventure, spy or superhero movie? If you want to double the audience for your movie, you now know what to do…

Things I Learned from… Godzilla

Now, you know me. I like a good monster, stomping around tearing down the scenery and being scary and tragic in turn. A great monster movie stimulates all the senses and delivers on the full cinematic experience – emotions, sound, visuals, awe and surprise. So it’s hardly surprising I liked the new Godzilla a lot.

The decision to hold Godzilla back for as long as possible – half seen, hinted at, glimpsed on a TV screen – works tremendously well. Personally, I would have liked just a little more monster-fighting in the third act, but you can’t please everyone…

(SPOILER WARNING – discussion of plot points follows)

But the problem with monster movies is, the human characters are not driving the plot. Pacific Rim and all its anime forebears find a way for the humans to fight the monsters, involving them in the action – but if you’re not going down that route, then your human characters are necessarily excluded from driving the narrative. Their job is simply to survive what’s happening around them.

This makes it pretty hard to involve the audience with your central character. Sure, they want to survive: but doesn’t everyone? If they’re not driving the story – and they can’t, that’s the nature of the genre – why are they the hero of this movie?

Godzilla flirts with this question constantly, but never seems able to commit itself to an answer, and ends up fatally weakened by its own indecision.

Ford Brody (a name only marginally more believable than Ford Prefect, let’s face it) starts the movie as a bomb disposal tech newly arrived back from active duty. This creates immediate heroic expectations – the US military will save the day!

Better still, he’s effectively predestined to this – his father Joe was a nuclear expert present at the most recent Godzilla sighting, and it’s that connection that drags Ford from San Francisco to Japan, and to his first encounter with giant mutated monsters. So far, so good.

(Though I do wish we’d had time to explore the connection between father and son’s professions, and the implications for their relationship. If you lose your wife in a nuclear catastrophe, and your son then chooses a career defusing bombs, you’d feel a little conflicted about that, wouldn’t you?)

Right, so we’ve got a hero who has a family connection to the monster, and bomb disposal skills. That’s all going to come in handy, right? That’s what binds him to the action, that’s what makes him our hero?

Well, no. Mostly. Ford knows nothing about the creatures, either from his past, or even from what he saw today. He has nothing to offer the military/scientific response team beyond one revelation which would have become apparent within a few hours anyway. He’s actually sent home – and it’s pure dumb geography that his route intersects that of the creatures, keeping him around to be our viewpoint character.

But wait! He’s a bomb expert, and here’s a giant nuclear bomb on a train! Ford Brody is about to become important to the plot again!

Sort of. The team travelling with the bomb think he might come in handy, rather than being vital. Then the bomb becomes a problem rather than a solution, and poor unwanted Ford finally has a job to do – shut it down –

Only when he gets there, the team declare after a cursory examination that the bomb casing can’t be opened and the bomb will have to be sent out to sea to explore harmlessly (!) rather than being defused. Ford does some stuff, but frankly, anyone could have achieved what he achieved – and we’re left wondering why this guy merited our attention for the last two hours…

What’s the lesson here? Your hero should be the only one who can save the day. Whether it’s skills, courage, insight or compassion, your hero is the only person with The Right Stuff to get this particular job done. If s/he wasn’t there, the world should have ended, because no one else could have done expected what s/he did…

An everyman hero is great, but some circumstance, character flaw or strength, or determination needs to make a hero of them. And poor old Ford is, in the end, simply a guy with a few things to offer that turn out not to be needed.

Always Mind Your Surroundings

So, as you’ve probably heard already, comic-book-movie screenwriter David Goyer has got himself into some hot water in front of a live audience while recording the Scriptnotes podcast (which is usually excellent, by the way). You can check out the details for yourself, but, with a little help from Craig Mazin, in the midst of a debate on how certain superheroes should be adapted into movies, he managed to suggest anyone in the audience who’d heard of Martian Manhunter was too geeky to have had sex, and call She-Hulk a ‘porn star’ created for Hulk to have sex with. (Eeeww, dude, they’re cousins!)

Does this matter? Is this just some guys getting carried away in the midst of banter and saying something dumb?

We’re all human, and we all take the piss and say off-colour stuff we don’t really mean under certain circumstances. The atmosphere in a writers room can get pretty silly at times, and we live in a culture that values laddish behaviour and sarcastic humour. Writers are far from being the worst offenders – I’ve done a lot of jobs over the years, and writing has by far the most inclusive, affirming and tolerant atmosphere that I’ve ever worked in – but still.

But in the end, it is part of a writer’s job to value what they do, and the people who respond to it.

None of us want to gush about how ‘important’ what we do is – but you know what? It is bloody important. Books, films and TV programmes have changed the attitudes of individuals and societies. They’ve contributed to improvements in civil rights for racial, sexual and social minorities. They’ve forced government action on social issues, led to the setting up of charities and pressure groups, and given individuals the inspiration and courage to change their lives. Art matters.

So the way we talk about our own work, and the people who enjoy it, matters too. If we imply people are dumb for liking this or that, we’re undermining all art, including our own. If we imply characters of one gender, race or sexuality are less important than others, we’re making a statement that has an effect on the society we live in.

And some criticism is more powerful than others. If you call Superman a porn star, you’re dissing a white, heterosexual American male, a group that has enough power and enough representation in art to handle some trash-talk. But when you start attacking a female hero on the grounds of appearance, you’re adding your voice to a tidal wave of cultural pressures and expectations that already warp the young minds exposed to them. There’s no heroism, and precious little humour, in an easy target.

Like it or not, as a content creator, it is a part of your job to learn to understand, tolerate and live alongside all humanity. That’s what’s going to make you a great writer – knowing and caring about people. It’s a part of your job not to be a douchebag. So, y’know. Get on that.

And if you can’t, at least remember Ducard’s advice from Batman Begins (which Goyer co-wrote) and don’t do it in public. “Always mind your surroundings.”

Change It Up

So, one of the things I decided to do to my new script was to change the genders of the main characters –  protagonist and mentor-antagonist – to female. Because more decent roles for women are good, because anything that makes a genre script stand out from the pile is good, and because who doesn’t want Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Lawrence (for example) in their movie?

What I hadn’t anticipated was how thoroughly it would refresh and reinvigorate the other characters. Every character in this script has become more interesting and more nuanced, because they’re now working with a team leader who’s not the usual jaded middle-aged male. And that’s without even resorting to the cliched “woman in a man’s world” stuff. The way the protagonist relates to her new workmates and friends is subtly different. The fractious relationship of authority, friendship and betrayal between the two characters feels much more fresh and original too.

And this is why people keep asking for more female characters, more people of colour, more gay and lesbian characters, more of anyone who isn’t a straight white middle-class male. It’s because audiences crave new experiences – and changing up your characters also changes up your story, delivering novelty, interest and surprises on all levels.

So if your idea feels a little cliched, a little samey – change your characters!

Things I Learned From… Divergent

Another month, another adaptation of a young adult novel! With The Hunger Games and the now exhausted Twilight franchise having established a market for female-led action-adventure for the teen audience, it now seems like everyone’s at it.

Divergent has all the usual boxes ticked: female protagonist who discovers she’s some kind of chosen one, future dystopia with strict rules that don’t quite make sense (“We’re going to stop conflict between political and social factions by… dividing everyone into factions. Yeah, that’ll work.”) Add a cute boy, a female villain and some big themes and we’re done!

Well, not quite.

The lesson I think we can learn as writers is – a central character who’s different isn’t enough.

Tris is Divergent, talented in every one of the five virtues this society uses to divide its population into thinkers, doers, the compassionate, guards against a threat that doesn’t actually seem to exist, and… ah, no one remembers the fifth one, right? So far, so good – but what does this mean for her?

As far as I can tell, nothing much. Being Divergent is something she simply is, not something she has to achieve, and that makes her a passive heroine.

In a well-intentioned attempt to cover this, the writers have filled the story with smaller goals. She has to hide her abilities – but since another Divergent turns out to have clues to theirs tattooed all over their back, clearly there isn’t that much danger of discovery. She chooses a largely unsuitable faction to join – but anyone can do that, it turns out, so this plotline has no bearing on her Divergent status. She trains endlessly to join this faction, despite having to be nursed along by her training officer and showing no great aptitude for it, and her divergency is of no discernable help.

Oh, and she has to prepare for a test that might expose her divergency, but that entire plotline derails when it turns out her training officer’s reactions to the test, not mention his backstory, are far more interesting and complex than hers…

In other words, she spends three-quarters of the movie running after goals that don’t relate to the supposed core concept of the movie, and which even make her look like a failure to the audience, as she’s rescued again and again by the male lead.

We have no measure of what it means, to her or to others, to be Divergent. We get no sense of how she thinks, how she feels, or how it’s terrible and/or wonderful to be different. Divergency remains just a label that makes her hunted, a shallow attempt to appeal to the teenage sense of alienation.

It’s only when the bad guys’ ultimate plan – which has nothing to do with Tris, and which she ends up fighting against almost accidentally – is revealed that Tris finds a real motivation to act, and by then it’s too late to engage the audience, especially in a 139 minute epic.

So let’s learn the lesson: action is not enough. Keeping your heroine busy is not enough. She has to want something – and being something and wanting something are not the same…

Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the New Hollywood Paradigm

From unpromising beginnings – “He’s a WW2 soldier who fights Nazis and literally dresses in the US flag?”  – the Captain America movies are proving to be the most intelligent, dependable and daring features of the Marvel Studios multiverse. The Winter Soldier is a smart, right-wing-baiting conspiracy thriller that starts off as a terrific action romp, and suddenly develops a raw emotional heart that’s delighted fans and played surprisingly well to those with no knowledge of the backstory (which includes me, to be honest).

I’m probably going to have things to say about the Winter Soldier himself, if you know what I mean, but I’ll give you a little longer to catch up before venturing into spoiler territory. For now, let’s take a quick look at the movie and how it illuminates Marvel Studios’ wider aims.

It’s a hugely enjoyable and hugely emotional movie, but in some weird ways, it’s strangely un-movie-like. (Yes, I know that’s not a word. It’s Sunday afternoon, cut me some slack…)

For a start, The Winter Soldier is unashamedly open-ended. While other story lines begin, develop and resolve as normal, the arc involving the two title characters reaches an emotional peak, but not a conclusion. (In traditional screenwriting parlance, that particular story is only at the end of act two – the ‘dark point’ or ‘all is lost’ – as the film concludes, and one of the credit scenes would play well as the beginning of act three, the moment where new information triggers change…)

The movie also splits its screen time between multiple characters without losing focus or audience interest. In other words, it’s a team movie in all but name. It namechecks and references a wider universe, even featuring characters who’ve been bit players in previous movies as major players. It ends by turning the dramatic universe upside-down, and then sets its characters going in new directions. They are not satisfied and changed, as movie characters are supposed to be: instead they’re in transition, going on to new challenges.

All of these are elements that you find in television drama – many commenters have called Marvel Studios supremo Kevin Feige the most powerful TV showrunner on the planet – but there’ s somewhere they’re even more common…

In the individual storylines and limited runs that make up comic book continuity. In a very real sense, Marvel Studios is not creating movies – it’s creating a new comic book universe, one that just happens to be made of actors and film rather than paper and pen.

Of course, comic books have been turned into movies before: some successfully, some… not so much. But until now, the basics of the story have been taken out and shaped into movie form. It feels to me that Marvel Studios are increasingly abandoning that approach, and instead shaping our perception of movies into something more like what we experience from long-term comic book reading.

Can this approach succeed? Possibly. There are dangers. Lack of closure is traditionally considered fatal to a movie. The Winter Soldier has a hugely powerful emotional hook, which helps, and it also plays to our perception that “the second in a trilogy is always open-ended”, as established by The Empire Strikes Back. But will other, similar movies succeed without those advantages?

There’s also the “you have to collect them all” effect, where audiences  feel that if they miss a movie in this wider universe, they’ll no longer understand what’s going on, and they lose interest. And they may even resent being manoeuvred into paying out for two or three 3D movies every year to keep up with the story world.

But the biggest danger is one that’s haunted comics for years – lack of consequences. If character X turns up as a guest in character Y’s comic and then seems to be in danger of dying, is she going to die? Of course no. She has her own title, and she’s a guest star in character Z’s title next month. She ain’t going nowhere.

Franchises already suffer from lack of consequences; it’s hard to imagine Mission: Impossible killing off Ethan Hunt, say. An expended movie universe, where every creative decision has an affect on the profit margins of five upcoming blockbusters, may finally leave us floundering in a story world where no one ever dies, and therefore, nothing ever matters.

And yet this expanded movie-comic universe has a lot going for it, too. Rich characters, intertwined stories, a depth of worldbuilding that’s rare in movies. I’m very interested to see how all this turns out…

Frozen and the New Hollywood Paradigm

I’m not normally a huge fan of animated movies, but I’m delighted to report that Frozen, co-written and co-directed by the prodigiously talented Jennifer Lee, has become the first film (co-)directed by a woman to make a billion dollars in ticket sales.

Think about that. Every single billion-dollar ever made – and nowadays, your movie’s nothing if it doesn’t at least get near that milestone –  has been directed by a man. And I bet there aren’t many female screenwriters represented in that total either…

And then let’s think about Frozen for a moment. Because Frozen does not conform to the typical Hollywood movie paradigm.

It splits the protagonist role interestingly between the two sisters: it’s the story of Elsa’s redemption, but Anna has the active, questing ‘heroine’ role. It suggests that (mild spoiler) the prince-and-princess ‘love at first sight’ cliche may not actually be a stable foundation for a romance – indeed, that it springs more from the damage an isolated royal upbringing does than from healthy desires. It ends with one heroine in the early stages of a romance, but the other quite happy without a man. And by far the strongest relationship in the film, the relationship that drives the story, is not romantic, but sisterly.

In short, Frozen became only the second animated feature to pass the billion-dollar mark by breaking all the rules of the Disney Princess romance. Yet more proof that the Hollywood paradigm is changing, and you don’t have to keep churning out the same tired plots with the same white male heroes to make money…

Things I Learned From… Dallas Buyers Club

Of all this year’s Oscar contenders, Dallas Buyers Club is the one that seems to be flying under the radar – in the UK, at least. It doesn’t have the ground-breaking technical achievements of Gravity or the all-star supporting cast of Twelve Years A Slave. It’s a movie that promises little in the way of uplifting  experiences: a movie about a man fighting the might of the pharmaceutical industry in the early days of the AIDS epidemic is never going to have a happy ending.

But it’s a tremendous piece of cinema, shot with extraordinary urgency and boasting truly Oscar-worthy performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about it, though, is the way it illustrates the great advantage of the cinematic film – the freedom that having a captive audience gives you to present an utterly unlikeable character.

For the first twenty minutes (at least) of the movie, Ron Woodroof is not a man most of us would cultivate as a best mate. He’s a promiscuous, drug-taking drunk – and the movie makes no pretence that any of that is particularly enjoyable, even to him. We first see him taking illegal bets and trying to flee with the money. He’s homophobic, has little respect for women, and doesn’t even seem to like his own friends that much…

I did not like this guy at first. If this had been a TV show, I probably would have changed channels. And by doing so, I would have missed a tremendous piece of drama.

The brilliance of the cinematic experience is that you’re committed: you’ve paid your money, you’re in your seat with your popcorn, and you don’t want to disturb the rest of the row by walking out. So you stay – and the movie has a chance to win you over, to show you a transformation on a scale that could never have happened if it had started with a more ‘likeable’ character.

Some people say that watching a movie at home is the same as watching it in a cinema. But is it? A DVD or download, like a TV channel, is perilously easy to turn off – forcing films to compete for the audience’s attention by making characters easier to bond with, easier to immediately grasp, and of course, likeable. Dallas Buyers Club is a movie that might have tested the patience of a’ home cinema’ audience – and that means it may be one of a dying breed…