Two For the Price Of One

I took my friend’s daughter to see Jack The Giant Slayer the other day, and it got me thinking – what’s with this sudden tendency to have secondary heroes in fantasy movies?

Jack The Giant Slayer has both Jack himself – the typical fairy tale hero, the ordinary lad who must rise to the chance of adventure – and Elmont, the heroic bodyguard/warrior who helps to protect Princess Isabelle. Snow White And The Huntsmen, very much in the same genre, has both the Huntsman and a prince who’s set up as a childhood love interest. Both are instrumental to the story in different ways.

And though it sits in a very different genre, the movie that’s responsible for all these teen-audience, romantically-tinged movies being made is Twilight – and there again, we have two male leads locked in a romantic triangle with the female lead.

Now, I’m all in favour of strong secondary characters. The more striking, attractive and compelling your supporting characters are, the better your movie will be.

But I’m also a fan of the idea of ‘character function’: the idea that each character plays a role within the story, in the same way every mechanic in a Formula One pitstop has a specific job to perform, all of which make up a whole event. Depending on the complexity of your story, you can define those functions in broad terms (love interest, villain, reflection/sidekick), or in more specific terms – for example, all the characters in a heist movie are thieves, but they all have a different role to play in the theft and in the movie.

The golden rule is: no two characters in your movie should be doing the same thing within the plot structure, even if they’re very different characters.

For an example of what happens when you ignore this, take a look at the Christopher Ecceleston season of Doctor Who. Much fantastic stuff in this season, of course: but once Captain Jack Harkness comes aboard the Tardis, something starts to feel amiss. Which is weird, because he and the Doctor are very different characters… Until you realize they both have the same character function:  “slightly madcap alien with advanced knowledge and technology”. Every time the writers come up with a plot twist, Jack and the Doctor are likely to react to it in the same way – and that’s the death of drama. They’re both fascinating characters, but they don’t belong in the same show.

Snow White and The Huntsman suffers from this problem, and has to resolve it by effectively shunting its Prince Charming character out of the plot – minimizing his screen time and his role in the story. Jack The Giant Slayer fares slightly better, partly by making Elmont a seasoned, near-indestructible warrior and Jack a simple farm boy, which allows for differences in both their actions and their reactions. But as Jack begins to grow into the warrior role, the story inevitably starts to suffer from too many heroes.

So why are writers, producers and directors allowing this to happen? I still don’t know. The moral of this particular fairy tale is: too many heroes spoil the broth…

Reader Question: How Far Is Too Far?

Yesterday, I received a question in the comments section that I thought could do with a longer answer, so here we go…

Emma says she’d like to be a screenwriter when she grows up, and is looking for some pointers:  “What I mean is, how far do you go before people think that [your story’s] supernatural themes are too cheesy or weird?”

That is a very good question, and one that’s tripped up many smarter writers than me. We’ve all seen films and TV shows based around the most preposterous ideas, and yet we believe them – and we’ve also seen stories that immediately seem false, ridiculous, and silly. But it’s often very hard to tell exactly what makes one story believable and another, laughable.

But I think there are a few pointers that will help you shape your supernatural elements into a more believable form.

One Piece Of Magic. This ‘rule’ comes from the screenwriting teacher Blake Snyder, and basically says that you can have one supernatural, alien or impossible element in a script – and only one.

So you could write about aliens. Or you could write about vampires. But if your aliens encounter vampires, and get bitten, and become alien vampires… Well, you can see for yourself that’s getting silly. In the same way, Wolfblood contains Wolfbloods, and nothing else: no vampires, no ghosts, no aliens, nothing.

Of course, you can frame your particular Piece Of Magic in such a way as to give yourself more room to manouvere. The X-Men all have different abilities, but that works because the Piece Of Magic is “humans are evolving amazing but random abilities”, which allows the writers to create any ability they like and still stay within the boundaries of their fictional world.

Like any other ‘rule’ of writing, you can get away with breaking it sometimes. Twilight has both vampires and werewolves, and apparently that franchise hasn’t done too badly… But as a fledgling writer, it might be a useful rule to follow.

Everything Except The Piece of Magic Is Real.  The more detailed, realistic and identifiable the world your amazing characters live in, the more likely the audience are to believe in the whole story, including the supernatural elements.

BBC Three’s recent drama In The Flesh explored the aftermath of a zombie attack – but it did so in an isolated Northern village beset by unemployment and family feuds, surrounded by bleakly beautiful countryside, peopled by ordinary human beings. And that’s why we believed in it. The reality of the world and supporting characters rubbed off on the premise.

Which brings me to a related point…

Your Characters Have To Be Real Human Beings. This is perhaps the most important technique at your disposal, because however clever the plots and the ideas, the characters are what really draw us to a show and keep us watching. Get your characters right, and the audience will believe in anything they do.

Apart from their supernatural abilities, the characters in Wolfblood are ordinary kids. They worry about homework, friendship, the rules their parents and teachers lay down, the way they look and the amount of pocket money they have. Some of them have family problems, some have crushes on other characters. In other words, they’re just like their young audience, and believable characters make for believable stories.

The Supernatural Element Must Mean Something. This is about theme, and theme is the easiest thing to overlook when you’re planning your story. Just being cool or scary isn’t enough to make your monster, alien or superhuman appeal to the audience – they have to embody something about life, the universe, and humanity.

For example, vampires are all about greed and desire. They literally feed off and destroy other people – and worse, turn them into insatiable creatures as well. They gain amazing abilities, but lose their humanity. Put a vampire in your movie, and immediately, it’s about all of those things.

Ghosts are all about being lost, not fitting in, being isolated from the world. Put a ghost in your TV series, and you’re going to end up telling stories about loneliness, isolation, friendship and the lack of friendship… And again, your series is about something.

Now think about the giant metal robots from the Transformers franchise. What do they embody? What are they about? Yelling and smashing things. The Transfomers robots are giant angry toddlers, and they appeal to the young for that reason – but you can’t tell a meaningful story with them, because they’re not about anything.

So, I hope all of that helps. If anyone else has any advice for Emma, pop it in the comments section – and keep writing, Emma!